"A Walk on the Moon" might have gone terribly wrong in so many ways. Tony Goldwyn, the actor-turned-director (and grandson of movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn), could have turned this appealing period piece into an exposition on the damage supposedly inflicted on America by the '60s and its various upheavals. The impact of the sexual revolution, hippies and Woodstock, a.k.a. sex, drugs, and rock & roll, might again have been overstated, simplified and vilified as the reason for everything that's wrong with this country.
Goldwyn, instead, working from a bright script by newcomer Pamela Gray, elicits restrained performances from a relatively low star-power cast for a gentle examination of one family's fairly believable -- if atypical -- reaction to the decade's rapid social, cultural and technological changes.
Diane Lane, the former child actor now forging a respectable career with character roles, adds new luster to her resume as Pearl Kantrowitz, a housewife and young mother of two about to embark on another summer residency at Dr. Fogler's Bungalows, a Catskills resort favored by Jewish families taking a break from New York City.
Pearl's husband, Marty (Liev Schreiber), a hard-working television repairman, who gave up college for family life, works so much that he's only able to stay at the retreat on weekends. "It's not my fault he's a slave to the establishment," daughter Alison (Anna Paquin) explains.
The resort's depiction, created by a woman who spent all of her summers in such a place, feels realistic. The youngest kids, including the Kantrowitzs' son, Daniel (Bobby Boriello), spend the long summer days playing in the grass and swimming, while the teen-agers ogle each other at the pool and at the impromptu movie theater, and the moms smoke cigarettes, drink Coke and play cards, while worrying aloud the perceived threats of marijuana and sex.
The monotony is broken up only by the traveling salesmen -- offering knishes, ice cream and blouses -- whose arrival is trumpeted over the camp P.A. system, in a joking manner reminiscent of the goofy announcements made on the "MASH" movie and television series.
It's 1969, the Summer of Love, and Pearl finds herself irresistibly attracted to blouse-seller Walker Jerome (Viggo Mortensen), a handsome free spirit and strong but silent type, with shaggy hair and sideburns, dressed in corduroys and a print shirt, and adorned with a leather chain. Walker, in some respects, represents everything Pearl missed out on by marrying young, and she approaches him cautiously before throwing herself into a torrid affair.
They give in to their passions on the floor of his van, as news coverage of the Apollo moon-walk flickers on his tiny black-and-white television. Later, they frolic together outside, skinny-dipping at a nearby waterfall and getting high. Pearl's absence, meanwhile, means she's not home to help her son recover from a bee attack or to guide her daughter through the traumas associated with sexual awakening.
The inevitable meltdown comes when Alison sneaks off to the Woodstock festival and spies on mom dressed in body paint, apparently tripping on acid and being held by her lover. "A Walk on the Moon," thankfully, doesn't offer a quick and tidy cleanup of the mess made by mom. There's real anguish here in Marty's reaction, which graduates from heartbreak to anger to despair, a near-battle over the children and their astonishment at the turn of events. "You love the blouse man more than all of us?" Alison asks Pearl.
There's something a little bit contrived about Marty's beginning of an apparent voyage from the land of the square to the zone of the hip, sparked by a few minutes listening to Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues." Ditto for Pearl's sudden pop-psychology analysis about the genesis of her problems. "Somewhere along the line, I disappeared," she tells her hurting husband. Still, "A Walk on the Moon" in other hands would have become a waltz on the mush of soap-operatic terrain. Thank the filmmakers for their graceful handling of difficult material.