(Originally posted at www.tkatthemovies.com)
If the wildly overrated Fantastic Mr. Fox’s biggest flaw was its lack of drama and danger, Moonrise Kingdom represents a welcome return to form for writer-director Wes Anderson. The turmoil and frustration bubbling under the surface of each carefully composed shot drives the best of Anderson’s work, and as Spike Jonze did with Where the Wild Things Are, Anderson here filters the anger and sadness of childhood through his idiosyncratic artistic vision.
The story is simple enough. Young Sam (Jared Gilman) and young Suzy (Kara Hayward) fall in love, bonded by their loneliness, and they run away together. As the two enjoy a host of adventures, the communities they left behind tear their hair out trying to find them. It all sounds like innocent fun, but along the way, there are scissor stabbings, dead dogs, explicit threats of violence towards parents and preteen hard-ons. And although the film pits youngsters against the dark side of nostalgia, it isn’t quite a coming-of-age pic. Instead, it’s a sort of dream about children desperately trying to be adults when they’re not even close, and how they spend the rest of lives trying to figure out what they lost.
For the first 10 minutes of tracking shots and neat little sets, I was worried Anderson had become the ultimate self-parody. Had his eccentricities consumed his sense of humanity? Did his Kubrick-esque obsession with precision eclipse anything he had to say? But fortunately, the film eases into its exaggerated yet honest world, full of incredible depth about its character’s insecurities. Anderson’s knack for exploring the naivety of young love and the brokenness of families moves in a very real way.
In fact, the tension between the exactitude of Anderson’s style and the messiness of his character’s lives is part of what makes this film so effective. Like Max in Wild Things, Sam and Suzy do not find easy solutions to the problems in their life. Instead, they react to reality with rage, one that feels true to the frustrations of childhood absent from any movies actually meant for kids. Suzy’s parents do not know how to deal with her depression, and Sam doesn’t even have any parents. These two characters completely misunderstand each other’s circumstances, and yet, they find comfort in each other. He laughs at her heartfelt confession of her inner pain, and she tells him that he’s special as an orphan, just like her favorite characters. But he sums it up perfectly, “I love you, but you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
The kingdom of Sam and Suzy on the beach is one of the most beautiful things Anderson has ever committed to film. The kids do not just want to play cute. They want to prance around to cool French records in their underwear and hold each other at night. There is something incredibly adult about their paradise but also something refreshingly true to the fantasies of tweens. And indeed, to have it all come crashing down, trying to hide behind the tent zipper when poppa Bishop (Bill Murray) can easily lift the whole damn thing off the ground, makes the reality of their getaway all the more palpable.
Gilman and Hayward both shine in their introductory performances. They bring thoughtfulness and sincerity to their characters without ever, amazingly, coming off as precocious or grating. Consider the bluntness of Suzy acknowledging she’s trying to hurt her mother (Frances McDormand), or the hardened dignity with which Sam responds to whether or not a fallen dog was good. “Who’s to say, but he didn’t deserve to die.” They are not addressing their real world problems as adults would, but rather facing their circumstances as children would, with an endearingly misplaced confidence in what sounds like wisdom and truth to them.
Supporting the young leads, an ensemble of adult actors brings the intricate character dynamics to life. Murray and McDormand hardly appear onscreen, yet they bring true weariness to a deteriorated marriage. And if this is largely a film about kids looking for parents, Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton) and Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) are men looking to be fathers, the former to his troop and the latter to someone like Sam. Norton in particular shines through in his audio diaries, expressions of self-doubt that round out what would have been an unbearable caricature in the hands of another writer or actor.
[Spoilers] The film closes without a neat happy ending. There is a tinge of sadness, one that reminds me of the The Graduate. If the 1967 pic suggests Ben and Elaine are destined to become just like their parents, the same could be said of Sam and Suzy, paralleling the affair of Mrs. Bishop and Captain Sharp. Will their love, one full of danger and passion, someday fade into one of disappointment and regret, designed to always be a forbidden secret? Is this why, in 2012, we are returning to the lost paradise of Moonrise Kingdom in the ‘60s? [End Spoilers]
I should note that suggesting Moonrise Kingdom as a return to form is not to say its as good as his previous work. The film does not feel quite as spontaneous or special as Bottle Rocket or The Royal Tenenbaums. Something about these films felt more natural, or perhaps it was just the freshness of Anderson’s approach 15 years ago, before every indie comedy felt like a pale imitation of his work. Indeed, talented auteurs making solid but not great movies that outshine the competition seems to be norm. A Dangerous Method, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Hugo and now Moonrise Kingdom are all standouts today, but then you remember Videodrome, Taxi Driver, Zodiac and Rushmore.
But even if it is not great, Moonrise Kingdom is essential viewing. Few directors are as thoughtful about cinematography, editing and especially mise en scene as Anderson. This in and of itself would be no small contribution to the cinema, but he has again employed his skill and his eye to tell a story that is incredibly enjoyable but also rooted in a very real sadness. I imagine I will soon return to the paradise of Moonrise Kingdom, searching for the answers to the film’s unanswered questions while drifting into the rhythms of its dreams.