I know some people who don’t care for the peculiar stylization of Wes Anderson’s films, but I am an enormous fan of his work, and the arrival of a new Wes Anderson film is always a cause for excitement for me. I particularly adored Mr. Anderson’s most recent film, Fantastic Mr. Fox (click here for my review). I loved it almost as much as The Royal Tenenbaums, which still stands as my favorite Wes Anderson film, though Fantastic Mr. Fox is very, very close. I was a little worried that, coming off of that great film, Moonrise Kingdom might be something of a let-down (in the way that The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou was somewhat disappointing to me after Tenenbaums, though I have subsequently come to really enjoy that film). But such was not at all the case. Moonrise Kingdom is magnificent.
The film tells the tender story of the young love that blooms between two twelve-year-olds, Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward), who decide to run away from their respective homes together. Sam is an orphan, who doesn’t seem to be loved by his new foster parents and who is ostracized in the Khaki Scout troop in which he finds himself a member. Suzy’s parents are still alive, but distant from her, wrapped up in their own failing marriage. Susy’s discovery that the mother is having an affair proves difficult for the young girl to make peace with. So Sam and Suzy make plans to set off on an adventure together.
The two kids are both fantastic. There are times when the performances of the young actors might feel a little stilted, but the two kids are both so genuine and honest that it’s hard to complain. Sam and Suzy are very different from one another, but the connection that forms between them is a magical one, and young Mr. Gilman and Ms. Hayward bring their childhood romance to beautiful, heart-rending life. The film wouldn’t work if these two weren’t believable, and let me say that the film works very well indeed.
The adults in their lives are just as wonderfully fascinating, if not more so! Bruce Willis has been stuck in “Bruce Willis” mode for a while now, so I was shocked by how great he is as the sad, lonely police captain on the small New England island on which the story is set. It’s a very tender, restrained performance, and it’s absolutely wonderful in every respect. Equally great is Edward Norton as the earnest leader of Sam’s Khaki Scout troop. Scout Master Ward is an adult, but he’s another great child-at-heart Wes Anderson creation, more at home in his life as a leader of young scouts than in his “real job” as a math teacher. Mr. Norton brings extraordinary warmth and kindness to the somewhat hapless character.
The other two key adult roles are Bill Murray and Frances McDormand as Suzy’s parents. Mr. Murray has done great work, this past decade, playing sad, broken characters, and so there’s an aspect of Walt Bishop that feels a bit familiar. But how can I complain when Mr. Murray is so spectacularly compelling in the role. His delivery of the line “it’s not enough” is heart-breaking. Frances McDormand crafts a very peculiar lady in Laura Bishop (I laughed every time we saw her use a megaphone to communicate with her kids), but a very human one. I love that we see her be weak (her extra-martial affair is hard to forgive) but also kind (her response when Suzy is terribly cruel to her, while in the tub, is measured and understanding). Both Walt and Laura Bishop are flawed people, but the film doesn’t cast them as the villains, which is a wise choice.
Some great actors pop up in memorable supporting roles: Jason Schwartzman, Bob Balaban, Tilda Swinton, and, believe it or not, Harvey Keitel, and they’re all wonderfully used. But the film belongs to the four adults and two kids described above. The complex relationships between them all, the things that bind them together and that push them apart, forms the heart of the film, and it is a magnificently warm, complex heart.
There is drama in Moonrise Kingdom, but also terrific humor. Edward Norton, in particular, is a hoot, and I need to re-watch his opening troop inspection immediately so I can soak in all the details. (We never had a latrine like that in any of MY scout camp-sites!!)
If there’s a flaw that I sometimes detect in Wes Anderson’s films, it’s that sometimes they can lose momentum mid-way. (Even though I really do enjoy the film now, I still feel that the biggest weakness of The Life Aquatic is that it feels more like a series of not-connected anecdotes rather than a complete start-to-finish narrative.) Bob Balaban’s fourth-wall-breaking revelation, early in the film, that a terrible storm is coming in three days’ time gives Moonrise Kingdom a nice bit of ticking-clock tension, and once the rain starts to fall I was delighted by the energy and even suspense of the film’s third act. It’s tremendously engaging, and not at all what I expected from Mr. Anderson.
Mr. Anderson’s films have always seemed, to me, to be closer to fairy-tales than they are to traditional film dramas. Perhaps its the innocence often found in his characters, or perhaps it’s the staged, not-quite-real settings he creates through his meticulously designed and crafted sets and props. But Mr. Anderson always throws a dose of cold hard reality into his films, which serve to keep his stories grounded. (Richie Tenenbaum’s suicide attempt in The Royal Tenenbaums is one dramatic example.) I was a bit surprised, at first, that the script by Mr. Anderson and Roman Coppola didn’t shy away from addressing the burgeoning sexuality of the two kids. It’s somewhat eyebrow-raising, but to me it works. In those scenes, Moonrise Kingdom becomes more than just a fairy tale, it becomes a powerful coming-of-age story.
Don’t let yourself miss this one, my friends. If you’re open to Wes Anderson’s unique brand of weirdness, I think this is one that will delight you.