One of the things I love most about Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom is that it fully understands what it's like to be a kid who feels out of place in the world. Both of the film's main characters are twelve years old, which is certainly an age where that sense of alienation can feel particularly strong: you're too old for the things the young kids do, you're too young for the things teenagers do and you're probably dealing with the terrifying early stages of puberty. This is a tender, amusing (but never condescending) story of a boy and a girl who become convinced that they are the only two people in the world who really, truly understand each other. Maybe they're right.
The film is set on the fictional island of New Penzance, an idyllic little place located somewhere in New England. Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman, Elsa & Fred) is an orphan who has spent a good deal of time moving from foster home to foster home. Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward, Fan Girl) is the oldest of four children, and lives at home with her parents Walt (Bill Murray, Lost in Translation) and Laura (Frances McDormand, Fargo). They meet in 1964 at a church event (a performance of Benjamin Britten's Noye's Fludde) and decide to become pen pals. Over the course of the next year, they write to each other about their assorted struggles at home and at school. Eventually, they fall in love and decide to run away together.
Of course, the notion of running away and attempting to survive in the New England wilderness is ridiculous, but Sam is a well-trained Khaki Scout who knows how to put a campsite together. I love the fact that neither of the kids ever really doubt the soundness of their plan – they're just old enough to think they know everything they need to know. Of course, Anderson also realizes that kids tend to be a little bit more capable than we think they are, though he (or rather, one of his grown-up characters) notes that, “Even smart kids stick their finger in the socket sometimes.”
The first hour of Moonrise Kingdom is a soulful, affecting coming-of-age tale that is rather elegantly combined with portraits of more grown-up variations of existential despair. Walt and Laura are panicking over the disappearance of their child, of course, but Walt is also dealing with the knowledge that Laura is having an affair with the local police Captain (Bruce Willis, Die Hard), who in turn worries that Walt knows what's up. Then there's Scout Master Randy Ward (Edward Norton, Fight Club), who feels guilt over the fact that Sam ran away from camp on his watch.
I realize my description makes the film sound bleak, but nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, there are tough emotional truths to contend with here (and they're dealt with honestly), but Anderson regards all of these characters with such delicate empathy. Additionally, it's hard to resist the director's playful sense of humor, which can be found in the film's witty dialogue and the film's consistently delightful production design. The cinematic world Anderson's movies exist in is always such a pleasure to visit, with their oh-so-symmetrical life-sized-doll-house sets and their Futura fonts and their deadpan denizens. There are those who find him too mannered (and his meticulousness has only grown stronger over the years), but the tweeness of his aesthetic is always rooted in real human emotion.
The melancholy tonal balance offered by the bulk of the film is beautiful, but the film embraces full-blown comedy in its final stretch, offering a manic rescue sequence of sorts that builds to a (literally) thunderous climax. I think I get what Anderson was going for here – the film's manic, outlandish tone is a reflection of the film's suddenly-feverish emotional climate (certainly feverish enough to convince a pair of twelve-year-olds that they need to go ahead and get married) – but this expertly-staged slapstick still feels like a slight letdown after the near-perfection of everything that came before. It almost feels petty to criticize the movie – even in this mode, Anderson runs circles around most of his peers – but it's hard to escape the feeling that the movie is making an unnecessary attempt to lighten the mood and deliver a crowd-pleasing finish.
The performances in Moonrise Kingdom are uniformly wonderful. Murray and McDormand make a perfect married couple, frequently using the sort of non-verbal shorthand that suggests a long, complicated, lived-in relationship. One of the film's most elegant moments arrives midway through, as Walt and Laura lay in their separate twin beds, stare at the ceiling and really talk to each other for what must be the first time in a long time. Willis is immediately convincing as an authority figure, of course, but he brings a lovely, lonely warmth to his performance that we rarely get to see from him. There's a perfect little scene in which he gives Sam some important life advice without ever coming across as a know-it-all adult (he even pours Sam a little beer – just a sip – to indicate that they're having a man-to-man chat). Norton's boyish qualities are put to great use as Scout Master Ward, and I'm not sure that any other actor could seem quite so sincere while delivering a line like, “Jiminy Cricket, he flew the coop!” There's also a fun little turn from Tilda Swinton (Snowpiercer), playing a social services worker named... er, Social Services, and Bob Balaban (Gosford Park) is wonderfully Balaban-y in his brief appearances as the film's onscreen narrator (who charmingly devotes himself to helping us get our bearings on the film's geography).
Great as the star-filled adult cast members are, the two kids are ultimately tasked with carrying the film, and they do so admirably. Sam and Suzy aren't just convincing twelve-year-olds, but very particular types of twelve-year-olds. Sam is a practical, confident young outdoorsman who always seems to have everything under control, and he often speaks with the romantic directness of a young Ernest Hemingway. Suzy is a dreamer, and enjoys losing herself in the assorted worlds of her YA fantasy novels (“I usually prefer a girl hero, but not always”). Gilman and Hayward do such lovely work together, speaking to each other like worldly grown-ups while their faces reflect youthful surprise. One of my favorite dialogue exchanges arrives after Suzy tells Sam she thinks being an orphan sounds awfully wonderful and romantic. Sam looks her square in the eye and responds firmly: “I love you, but you don't know what you're talking about.” She looks at him bashfully: “I love you, too.”
The film was Anderson's follow-up to his animated feature Fantastic Mr. Fox, and the sprightly, breathless rhythms of that movie certainly inform this one (particularly during the last act, but all the way through to some degree). Part of that feeling comes from the film's soundtrack, which fuses Britten selections with a collection of twangy Hank Williams tunes and a flavorful Alexandre Desplat score that bounces, twinkles and gives the whole thing a sense of romantic playfulness. The director's frisky efficiency is employed in a variety of amusing ways, including a montage lifted from The Honeymoon Killers (of all places) in which the the opening lines of love letters trace a months-long romance in the span of a minute or two.
I may quibble with the way Moonrise Kingdom opts to wrap things up, but I should also admit that it's a film I never tire of revisiting. I've seen it four times now, and every single time I watch it, its best moments hit me a little harder. Like several of Anderson's movies, it covers a lot of territory but ultimately boils down to a portrait of good people figuring out how to love each other. It's yet another deftly moving and consistently entertaining gem from one of America's finest filmmakers.
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 94 minutes
Release Year: 2012