Wes Anderson has carved out a solid place for himself as an indie darling. And yet I must admit that I haven’t found his films as superlative as many others do. Something about films like Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou always feels a little too self-congratulatorily cute — triumphs of style over substance. With Moonrise Kingdom, I’m pretty convinced that the problem is that Anderson hadn’t yet gone far enough. In the right situation and with the right characters all the gratingly twee edges soften, leaving a sweetly surreal fable.
The secret is this: what Anderson really makes are illustrations of an awkwardly precocious young teenage boy’s fantasies. Max, Steve Zissou, and all the Tenenbaums get the achievement and recognition that such a boy dreams of, and in the esoteric fields that catch his interests. And yet it’s taken until this film to actually feature a kid like this — Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) — and to take his fantasies as archly seriously as only a twelve-year-old boy can.
Sam is an orphan, nominally in the care of a work camp of a foster home, but away with a curiously long-running Khaki Scout camp on New Penzance Island, in early September, 1965. He sticks out and doesn’t make friends well, so he runs away with Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) he met one year previously and has carried on correspondence with ever since. Suzy is Sam’s mirror: a girl who doesn’t quite fit in, herself; the kind of girl a boy at the cusp of adolescence wishes for.
This kicks off a manhunt across the sixteen-mile-long island, involving the rest of the scout troop, their leader (Ed Norton), local police captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), Social Services (Tilda Swinton), and Suzy’s parents (Frances McDormand and Bill Murray). And we are told by a local scientist/narrator (Bob Balaban) that there is also a massive incoming storm, heavy with symbolism.
As is usual with Anderson’s scripts — and partly due to Roman Coppola’s help — the characters are quirky and memorable, and a talented cast brings them to life with a minimum of fuss. The situations are similarly surreal and overwrought. In his earlier films this can come off as the sort of forced affectation that critics complain about in hipsters. But in this context they feel natural; in a young boy’s vision of the world, and in the novels Suzy reads voraciously, these are the sorts of things that happen.
Which is not to say that the movie feels natural. Anderson films exclusively in right angles, and not just in his signature overhead shots. His camera slides rigidly left and right, up and down between the rooms of the Bishops’ doll’s house, around the perimeters of Camp Ivanhoe, and even out in the forest. Characters are shot face-on or in hard profile. Long, still shots are meticulously framed. Throw in the grainy, sixties look and the whole thing just screams at how constructed it is. It admits to the unrealism of its fantasy.
And even while running away with is fantasy, the film undercuts itself; while the young leads believe wholeheartedly in their love and it’s possibilities, the adults — the Bishops and Captain Sharp in particular — feel their own possibilities slipping away between their fingers. One some level this young man understands that the time for escapades like these is fleeting, and also that it’s essential to hold onto some part of it before it’s too late.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.