The time is 1965, and the place is a small island off the coast of New England. In a division of boy scouts, Fort Ivanhoe, a young boy called Sam Shakusky runs away as part of a well thought out plan to meet up with a girl, Suzy, from the other side of the island. They first met exactly a year earlier (as we are informed with a bold title card), at a church show where Suzy dressed up as a Raven and caught the bold little man’s eye. She tells him to write her, and we see that they shared a sweet correspondence for a year, until the time comes round again and they run away from their respective homes, causing all hell to break loose.
This is the basic premise behind Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, a completely goofy and equally sweet film from the master of quirk, Wes Anderson. The story takes place entirely within its own stylized universe, and those familiar with the director’s work will recognize his up, down, and sideways gliding camera, and deliberate blue and yellow color palettes.
I’ve found some of Anderson’s past films a little distancing at times, like he’s cheating us out of full investment in his stories by remaining too aloof. This time however, the characters are sincere without seeming forced, and manage to be at once believable while unmistakably not quite of this world. Edward Norton plays the leader of the Boy Scout troop, essentially an oversized boy scout himself. He is extremely discombobulated when one of his gang escapes (in a funny throwaway homage to another famous movie breakout), and in his efforts to find him he becomes more and more like a kid who’s gotten in over his head. His almost unreal earnestness and sense of duty is hilariously touching.
Another major adult player is the island sheriff, played by Bruce Willis in a subtle (!) performance that almost reads as a little dig at all those roles where he blows stuff up. Here he can’t even locate a missing kid. The main subplot involves Willis’s melancholy affair, if you can call it that, with Suzy’s mother (Frances McDormand), married to an especially moody Bill Murray. The two of them run their tumultuous household as if it were a military barracks – she announces that dinner is ready through a megaphone. Unsurprising, Suzy is a rebel and has issues with her parents. She tells Sam that she wishes she were an orphan like him, because they lead more exciting lives. His reply is one of the best lines in the film, and the chemistry between the two leads is the key to its success.
Indeed, though many well-known faces populate the screen – Tilda Swinton and Jason Shwartzman are a couple of other – the stars of the show remain the two twelve-year-olds. Their actions could have come off as boring or embarrassing to watch, but the screenplay gives them intelligent things to say, and the young newcomers hit the exact right notes. Though attempted in many films, this is one of the most effective portrayals of soon-to-be teenager romance; it has something to do with the fact that they’re both smart, while in a way having no idea what they’re doing. And yet they’re probably the most together people in the movie. Their innocence and discovery evoke a refreshing simplicity; when they dance on the beach to Francoise Hardy’s “Le Temps De L’Amour”, it packs more of a punch than a lot of adult big-screen relationships. We actually believe they are in love. Without such controlled performances and precise writing, the film would have fallen apart.
I feel I might be making the movie sound like a bit more of a somber mood piece than it is. In reality it’s a fast-paced, witty, and ultimately delightfully anarchistic comedy that dares you not to find some emotion buried in there as well. Anderson shot on Super 16mm film that was then blown up to 35mm, and it gives the image a slightly low-budget and new wave-y feel that works just right for the time period and general ambiance. This aesthetic also contributes to taking us off-guard as the tale builds assuredly to events more and more grandiose and dramatic. In a way the film doesn’t feel scripted, but always knows exactly where it’s going.
Ultimately I think it works because all of the characters take their predicaments very seriously, and don’t wink at the camera as if to tell us they know they’re just acting. Moonrise Kingdom may be a simply whim, but it is ambitious in its discreet little way, and manages to be funny, sweet, and epic all in one go. What more could you ask?
Review by Michael Berlind