Moonrise Kingdom (2012) A
This quirky drama from eccentric filmmaker Wes Anderson depicts the humorous disruption of a quaint coastal island town, when two 12-year-olds fall in love and venture off into the wilderness together. As the townspeople hunt for the runaway kids, a driving storm forecasts even more profound communal upheaval. Moonrise Kingdom is warm and whimsical, poignant and well-acted, and finds the idiosyncratic filmmaker on top of his peculiar game. Anderson is such a visual thinker and storyteller, audiences rightfully presume they’ll be treated to something artistic to look at while he tells them a tale. But, this is not a filmmaker who is all style and no substance. His substance is his style, because he begins work by becoming inspired by music or artwork and then shaping the story and aesthetic around that inspiration. Moonrise Kingdom has a charmingly retro look and impeccable framing, with great depth in its compositions, which helps to immerse the audience into the idyllic setting of a fictional New England island town in 1965. For all the vintage stylings that Anderson’s films so confidently wear, this is his first period piece; a tender love story set in the sepia-soaked ‘60s that informed his youth and have worked their influence into every one of his cinematic works. The aesthetic beauty of Moonrise Kingdom provides a nice backdrop for the themes that it explores: first crush and puppy love, escaping from a pigeon-holed existence, and reconsidering one’s place in his or her community.
At the center of this film are two accomplished performances by the young actors playing an overzealous couple: Jared Gilman as the decisive and defiant orphan, Sam, and Kara Hayward in a luminous performance as Suzy Bishop. Sam is a literal outcast, unwanted by his foster family or by his troop of fellow Khaki Scouts. Likewise, Suzy feels misunderstood in her own household. Their connection is born out of a shared dissatisfaction, like two black sheep fleeing their flocks to find a greener pasture. Sam’s quirkiness casts him as an underdog, and makes him an undeniable protagonist in a parade of characters written by a filmmaker who has cornered the market on quirkiness. But that’s only the backstory for Sam, whom we meet on the day he flees Camp Ivanhoe with a plan to run away with Suzy and live off of the land. Their shortsighted confidence is amusing and endearing, as the young couple experiences the realities of being self-sufficient, while at the same time trying to navigate the waters of a new relationship. It’s refreshing to see a film that handles prepubescent love so tenderly and candidly, instead of shying away or having to avoid it altogether. It’s this young love that holds the emotional center of Moonrise Kingdom, while at least 3 types of nostalgia warm the proceedings, and the hunt to restore order drives the film’s forward motion. While the children adventure, the adults search, and they all speak very matter-of-factly. They come across as being genuine and earnest, because Anderson takes them very seriously. Despite depicting a human comedy, he resists allowing it to become farce. The viewer feels the intensity of that first crush between young daydreamers who are at that pivotal age when you start to become disillusioned with the thought of others supposedly knowing what’s best for you. Like Anderson’s other stories, this one is populated by young people who conduct themselves like adults, and grown-ups who behave like children. Both groups reveal an equal propensity for spontaneous wisdom and inspired mistakes.
Anderson attracts some terrific actors to support the young couple, with some playing more important roles than others. Bill Murray returns to Wes’s world and delivers accordingly. He’s typically good, playing Suzy’s dryly detached father, but not really a standout here. His character’s wife, played by Frances McDormand unknowingly sets their daughter’s path to forbidden love in motion. Suzy sees her mother’s example for finding emotional connections, buries herself in a collection of youth-lit based on adventurous heroines, and searches her trusty binoculars for life beyond the horizon. Murray and McDormand portray attorney spouses and both possess glumly expressive faces that convey the spirit of comic sadness so prevalent in Anderson’s work. Jason Schwartzman plays Cousin Ben, an ally scout leader from another camp on the island. He is used slyly, but sparingly, as a sort of older brother figure. He’s a go-between for the kids who are fed up with adults (lawyer parents, scoutmasters, troop leaders, cops, pastors), all of whom have staked their vicarious claims to Sam and Suzy’s adolescence. Cousin Ben is the one intermediary who can nearly see things from the kids’ perspective. Like the older brother that will buy you alcohol in high school, he might have temporary misgivings of irresponsibility, but those thoughts are overridden by his understanding that reaching beyond your maturity is how you become mature; a feeling that’s bolstered by the reassurance that your lack of applied confidence will dampen your courage to go overboard. Moonlight Kingdom is an exercise in rocking the boat in the interest of exploration and self-discovery; facing extreme conditions without capsizing.
Joining Kingdom’s crew is Bruce Willis, deftly playing a simple man, a sad cop, and a reluctant surrogate father figure named Captain Sharp. Harvey Keitel pops up as the commander of a larger scout camp and is unusually funny in his small role. The pluckiest supporting performance is supplied by Edward Norton, who plays against type as a scoutmaster, so devoted to his troop that he refers to his math teaching career as “part time.” He’s a flawed, but committed character who struggles like every other failing adult on the island, with the exception of the delivery pilot-narrator. Bob Balaban plays the all-seeing pilot who provides the audience access to a larger field of view. He serves as the narrator and human bookmark as we make our way through the narrative. He’s placed center-frame and shrouded in bright red, acting as a beacon for the impending storm, set to flood the scenery with blowing wind and chaos, before washing away the feelings of angst that have built up, boiled over, and eventually need to be tampered back down. The aftermath allows for a renewed outlook on community as several characters have improved their position or outlook within this little world. Our natural pursuit of a sense of community is well-explored here. The kids are catalysts for the townspeople to consider their roles and actions within this offbeat colony. Tilda Swinton is underused as the outside authority, but is good in her brief performance, as the script allows her and Keitel to lend eccentricity to their bit parts.
Moonrise Kingdom pulls off the rare achievement of being simultaneously fun and sentimental. We know this is a fantasy world of Anderson’s making, and yet the characters’ connections feel real enough to be relatable. As the film reaches its apex, the storyline becomes more far-fetched. Yet, remarkably, this doesn’t detract from the emotional pull of the film. With a curious collection of scouts named Izod, Roosevelt, and Lazy Eye, this is a movie that reads like a good, old-fashioned storybook. It feels wonderfully bookish, but is stylized in a way that adds the joy of being told a story aloud by a showman who specializes in sound and vision. Similar to O, Brother Where Art Thou?, Moonrise Kingdom employs an immersive environment, detailed and definitive visuals, and a fantastic score. The storytelling is typical of the uber-creativity that we’ve come to expect from Anderson. He establishes the narrative situation in brisk, efficient, funny ways, beginning with the befuddled adults, then going back to the kids’ first meeting. The courtship between the kids is condensed into a rapid back-and-forth format of letter writing, and the adults’ radio communications across the island are distilled into simple split-screen conversations. All of it is handled so masterfully that it becomes creative and intelligent storytelling. Anderson sprinkles in some meaningful scenes like a profound and subtle apology-conversation between Murray and McDormand in the bedroom, and a brief, but telling exchange between Willis and Murray in an uncomfortable car ride. It’s these graceful moments in the script that help to lift the entire vessel to unforeseen crests. A “Noah’s Ark” motif buoys the film visually, along with the look of ‘60s home movies, and postcards from summer camp. Moonrise Kingdom is sweet, and funny, but a sadness permeates the proceedings and balances out the joyful adventure that includes some real danger along the way. The story is based on the idea of fleeing the imposed structure of a family unit in order to find yourself. In the end, we see our protagonist don a new uniform (a consistent theme in Anderson’s films), signifying that he still belongs to a community, but perhaps with a more respected rank, and as a much-needed part of someone’s life. Moonrise Kingdom begins and ends by gifting viewers access to the upper tier of the Bishop Family’s nautical jewel box estate. Anderson lets us peer inside with mesmerizing effect and a lasting vision, as he composes an ode to mischief, shifting priorities, and the splendor of Summer. 95 A
In Class With: O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Carnage, American Beauty, and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou