by Melissa Strong
Growing up with a sibling means always having an alibi, plus someone else to blame for broken stuff. It means always competing for attention from parents. And it means worrying about your brother hiding Michael Anderson in your closet to watch you change clothes. Okay, maybe that last one is just me. Because my sibling’s birth occurred a year and a half after my own, I cannot remember a time when he wasn’t around. We grew up together, from preschool Play-Doh to high school They Might Be Giants shows.
Cinematic sibling coming-of-age stories can capture that experience of brothers and sisters transitioning out of childhood. In The Man in the Moon (1991), 14-year-old Dani (Reese Witherspoon, in her film debut) develops emotionally and sexually in 1950s Louisiana, leaving behind a safe crush on Elvis for a riskier one on new neighbor Court (Jason London). Dani’s older sister Maureen (Emily Warfield) is her foil: mature, composed, and dutiful. Yet the sisters are close, sharing their thoughts and feelings freely, until Court comes between them. Then tragedy strikes, straining the sisters’ relationship and challenging the part of Dani that hangs on to childhood. Yeah, I dissed Laura Jeanne in last month’s issue, but that’s because I am impatient with people who inconsistently live up to their potential. Young Witherspoon is rock solid here, successfully carrying most of The Man in the Moon, a movie about the difficulty of growing up and the way siblings can aid or hinder that journey.
Witherspoon returns to the 1950s in Pleasantville (1998), teaming up with Tobey Maguire to play a present-day twins who get Jumanji-ed into an old black-and-white TV show. That show is Pleasantville, a made-up sitcom reminiscent of Father Knows Best or Andy Griffith where wholesome people live idealized yet sanitized lives. David (Maguire) is thrilled initially, enjoying the escape from his real-world identity of nerdy outcast brother to pretty, popular Jennifer (Witherspoon). Jennifer is upset, but she cooperates with David and plays along with him at being Bud and Mary Sue, the kids on the show whose roles they suddenly inhabit. Unwittingly, David and Jennifer corrupt the town with ideas from the future that challenge 50s norms, expectations, and conformity. Pleasantville begins to change, in ways that may seem less surprising and moving today than they did in 1998, but David and Jennifer change too. This development is more complex, with the siblings growing in concert into self-aware and fully realized individuals able to see their sibling as a person.
Just prior to Pleasantville, Tobey Maguire played another dorky brother in The Ice Storm (1997), a movie which also demonstrates how family members respond to a shared experience in different ways. The Ice Storm is as much about the parents as it is about the kids, Paul (Maguire) and Wendy (Christina Ricci), and there are plenty of adults-behaving-badly moments to raise questions about maturity and responsibility. Still, these moments effectively portray the difficulty of growing up, a process that remains in progress for most people. Fittingly, The Ice Storm is set during the Watergate hearings, a time of diminishing innocence and growing disillusionment for the nation. Despite the differences between Paul and Wendy, who charmingly call one another Charles, they are right there with each through various storms. Together, as Charles, they bear witness to their shared experience of all the chaos.