Moonrise Kingdom marks the most singularly Wes Andersony film of Wes Anderson’s career to date. It also represents a perfect vehicle for the quirks and tics that define his vision as a filmmaker– that impeccable and odd sense of style, seen in his set designs, costuming choices, and musical accompaniments, as well as the trademark dryness which accents nearly every line of dialogue spoken in his pictures. The Anderson aesthetic, a hard dividing line between his admirers and detractors, feels even more suited to his latest offering than it did three years ago in Fantastic Mr. Fox; its inherent whimsy and quirkiness make for a natural fit within Moonrise Kingdom‘s fairytale mode, bestowing a genuinely sweet-tempered touch of innocence upon what easily amounts to Anderson’s best effort yet.
That may seem like high praise for one of the few working auteurs today truly deserving of the label. But relegating adult characters to the background in favor of child protagonists allows Anderson to follow the recurring themes of his cinema from a place of purely youthful inexperience, and in doing so explore them anew. Anderson has examined the lasting and detrimental effects familial dysfunction can have on children (The Royal Tenenbaums) and fashioned an emotionally and socially alienated misfit into his protagonist (Rushmore) before, but Moonrise Kingdom handles the heartache inflicted by both directly from the perspective of actual kids instead of the adult offspring of a principal character and a precocious high school student. Sometimes, a change in viewpoint can make a world of difference.
Here, Anderson filters each of the aforementioned thematic matters through the budding romance between Sam Shakusky and Suzy Bishop (newcomers Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward), two twelve-year-old loners residing on a New England island. During a year of pen pal correspondence, they hatch a plot to run away together in the summer of ’65; the ensuing search for the pair collects a frantic crew including Suzy’s parents (Frances McDormand and Bill Murray), the local police captain (Bruce Willis), and Sam’s scout master (Edward Norton), each of whom bears the burden of their individual and varying forms of mid-life ennui. And all the while, the threat of an approaching, massive storm looms large over the film’s unfolding events.
It’s in the stark contrast between its two stories– Sam and Suzy’s wholly, naïvely tender and touching woodland foray, and the adults’ clumsy, well-intentioned attempts to find the couple while managing their own baggage– that Moonrise Kingdom finds its unique voice in Anderson’s body of work. The film balances the straightforward and pure love between its youthful leads against the far more faded sheen of adulthood, with its painful intricacies and compromises; it’s a loaded comparison, and Anderson knows it. If Sam and Suzy find happiness with each other now, what happens when they grow up, especially considering the blueprints for adulthood laid out for them by the authority figures of their lives? Mr. and Mrs. Bishop communicate with one another using bullhorns, and they sleep in separate beds; Captain Sharp lives alone in a trailer, disheveled and defeated by the rejection of the woman he loves; Scout Master Ward defines himself entirely by his success as a leader to the boys in his troop. Does life really peak at twelve? Do we all go downhill following the first elated expression of physical and emotional love in our lives?
Maybe dancing on a remote beach to Françoise Hardy’s Le Temps de l’Amour really is as good as it gets, but despite the cynical nuances Anderson brings to Moonrise Kingdom (particularly in the film’s final shot), he seems to be arguing that it’s the grown-ups that have everything wrong. And, frankly, they do– no matter how one chooses to interpret the film’s layers of meaning. Sam and Suzy hold back nothing from each other; in every communication they have with one another, whether literary or conversational, they display total and unabashed honesty. Meanwhile, the adults tend toward staying mum on their own feeling instead of expressing, and they’re all either outright miserable or merely unfulfilled while Sam and Suzy find contented bliss.
Of course, what they share is idealistic. If the adults here have anything “right”, so to speak anyhow, it’s that loves like Sam and Suzy’s can’t– or just don’t– last. But Moonrise Kingdom grounds itself in heightened reality; it plays out like a storybook, bright, colorful, bluntly and optimistically poetic, and utterly devoted to that aforementioned idealism. So what if Sam and Suzy’s relationship of impetuous first love doesn’t hold up to the scrutiny of age and experience? We’re in what amounts to fable territory here. Verisimilitude is scarcely the point.
But that’s one of the hallmarks of Anderson’s work: that odd tension between authenticity and fantasy. There’s no doubt that Moonrise Kingdom is a real story about real people and issues, but it folds its realism into an enchanting children’s yarn about the dangers of growing up. For every bit of twee sensibility, unapologetic absurdity, or dead-pan oddity, there’s an earnest, genuine performance from one of the cast members– Gilman and Hayward, notably, turn out incredibly effective work in their debut performances, while Willis plays beautifully against type in one of his most memorable recent performances. (In fact, everyone here is at their best, playing Anderson’s understated sense of humor, physical or otherwise, with simple ease, and their respective heartbreaks with surprising grace.) Ultimately, what makes Moonrise Kingdom so excellent lies in how Anderson synthesizes the two elements; it’s a film that looks like a combination of Norm Rockwell, Davey Crockett, and Boy’s Life imagery brought to life, but also a film with a truthful and heartfelt soul.