It was not too long ago that I was the same age as the twelve-year-old protagonists of Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom. The film is so bout-about nostalgia for childhood and outsized passion that I could not help but reflect back upon my own experience (which was far less interesting than what is shown in the movie). I, too, believed that my feelings for this or that girl were the most important thing in the world, and that everything in my life needed to be subsumed beneath it. Like Sam and Suzy, I was willfully ignorant of and/or baffled by the shocked reactions of adults when all I wanted was some alone time with my female friend. What makes this one better than any other Anderson movie for me is that, for the first time, he really seems to get his characters. That is why I was so delighted and emotionally involved with Moonrise Kingdom.
The two leads are Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward, both of whom are unbelievably precocious but not in that annoying Hollywood style you might see in stuff like Real Steel. I like to think that I was equally beyond-my-years at twelve (I probably wasn’t), and so I identified with their desire just to abandon all the silly kids stuff that they’re wrapped up in. For Gilman, he’s part of the Khaki Scouts, led by Edward Norton in such an oddball performance that I wouldn’t have recognized him had I not known it was him. Hayward is trapped at home with her disconnected lawyer parents, played by Bill Murray and Frances McDormand. Bruce Willis rounds out the cast as Sheriff Sharpe, with Tilda Swinton and Bob Balaban playing small, but key, supporting roles.
When a movie pays such close attention to young people, usually the adults are drowned out by the film’s insistence on being “kid-friendly.” But Anderson somehow strikes a remarkable balance between depicting the exhilarating and adorable adventures of the children with the frantic incompetence of the adults. You sympathize with both sides of the equation in this case, which is a tribute both to Anderson’s even-handed direction and stylistic approach. Anderson could be accused of being emotionally detached, but the actors overcome the barrier established by the director’s style with their understated, but endearing, performances. What’s even more impressive is that the two young leads are newcomers.
As with Anderson’s other work, the plot takes a backseat to style, and in this case, that’s a plus. The story, such as it is, does not have too many places to go on its own: the kids run off together, and the adults look for them. But Anderson fills the runtime with plenty of non-sequiturs that almost always elicit a chuckle, if not an outright laugh. Some memorable moments include Sam and Suzy’s first physical encounter, which they talk through with one another like the brainy tots they are. There’s also Murray’s dreary father figure, who approaches his three sons, shirtless and wielding an axe, to say, “I’m going out back to find a tree to chop down.” The asides feel natural and fit easily into the whimsical world that Anderson has created, and don’t feel as though they are padding out the runtime.
Another insult that could be lobbed at Anderson is “pretentious,” but only at first blush. A closer look would explain why he feels the mise-en-scene with an insane amount of detail. The characters that he and co-writer Roman Coppola have created are all as obsessive as they are, and so by filling the world around them with all kinds of interesting stuff to look at, their environment takes on just as much personality as the actors. Moonrise Kingdom made me realize that I may have to give Anderson another chance. He first surprised me with Fantastic Mr. Fox, and made ma believer with this movie.