An ode to what it’s like to be 12 years old an in love, Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom isn’t the writer-director’s smoothest feature, but it feels like his purest.
It’s difficult not to label Anderson’s filmography as “twee” — sure, the term fits, but it also overlooks the emotional depths he plumbs via his parades of eccentric square pegs. Moonrise doesn’t delve as deep as his best works (The Royal Tenenbaums, The Fantastic Mr. Fox) but it is no less affecting.
The movie is set in 1965, on a remote island of the New England coast. A bright but troubled Khaki Scout named Sam (Jared Gilman) goes over the walls of Camp Ivanhoe to meet up with young love Suzy (Kara Hayward). Unlike Sam, Suzy has a family life, consisting of three younger brothers and a mother, Laura (Frances McDormand), who is cheating on her father, Walt (Bill Murray), with the island’s sole law officer, Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis). Suzy, prone to violent outbursts when enraged, is quietly rebelling against her fractured family life by running away with Sam, who is rebelling against pretty much everything.
As the young lovers make their away across the island to a secret cove, they are pursued by search parties organized by Sharp and droll Scoutmaster Ward (Edward Norton); the latter turns loose a party of scouts who don’t much like Sam, to the point that they ask if they’re authorized to use force. All the while, the largest storm of the last half of the 20th century is heading towards the island.
At this point it should be noted that Moonrise Kingdom is a kid’s movie for adults, a tongue-in-cheek piece of nostalgia designed to remind us grown-ups what it was like “to be that age”. Anderson and co-writer Roman Coppola (who also co-wrote The Darjeeling Limited) seem to tap everything from classic romance dramas to ’50s youth-gone-wild films to ’60s French New Wave cinema, and all points in between. This time, however, the absurdism is more focused and refined and the characters more accessible — there is, after all, the appealing wish fulfillment that comes with watching idealized versions of our childhood selves as opposed to the disenchanted adults we tend to become.
Gilman and Hayward successfully maneuver their way around Anderson’s signature deadpan dialogue and holding their own with the coterie of veteran actors they’re cast with. Gilman arguably one-ups Jason Schwartzman’s (who appears in cameo as a rogue scoutmaster) Rushmore performance, and Hayward manages to project equal parts ingenue and adolescent valkyrie. That your attention stays riveted on them even while they’re sharing the screen with the likes of Murray, McDormand, Norton, Willis, Bob Ballaban (as the narrator), and Harvey Keitel (as a Khaki Scout camp leader) says a lot.
Bittersweet and disarming, Moonrise Kingdom is every bit as extravagant as Anderson’s other movies, but balanced by humor that is both innocent and dark, and while the trademark Anderson artifice is all there, it works decidedly in his favor for the first time in a while.