Moonrise Kingdom (United States, 2012)

June 05, 2012
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Moonrise Kingdom Poster

Few working directors are as consistently, dependably quirky as Wes Anderson, whose films tend to excite art house audiences while being ignored and bypassed by mainstream movie-goers. His latest, Moonrise Kingdom, represents one of his best, in large part because it tones down some of the more abstruse elements of his style in favor of greater accessibility and stronger character identification. One knock against some of Anderson's previous efforts is that they're too clever - so clever, in fact, that the humanity gets sucked out of them. That doesn't happen here. Moonrise Kingdom is lovingly crafted with an attention to detail that is breathtaking while, at the same time, it displays genuine affection for its young protagonists, reserving any cynicism for the adults, who can be said to more closely resemble typical "Anderson characters."

Few things in life are more urgent and transcendent than a pre-teen romance embarked upon at a time before sexual desire has crystallized beyond a vague curiosity and "love" is a term for which true meaning remains elusive. The writers of Moonrise Kingdom, Wes Anderson and Ramon Coppola, have excellent memories. Both are in their 40s (Coppola was born in 1965, Anderson in 1969) yet they have brought this story to the screen through the eyes of 12-year olds. Therein lies the movie's route to success; it gets us to remember our youth and imagine how things might have been for us in these circumstances. The movie's innate innocence springs from its adoption of this viewpoint. And it builds the perspective by subtle cues and easy-to-miss details that feed directly into the viewer's subconscious.

Neither Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) nor Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) could be described as "normal" or "well-adjusted." Both are whip-smart and headstrong. Sam is an orphan who has become such a tribulation to his foster parents that he is not being invited back after spending his summer at a boy scout camp on a New England island. Suzy, a resident of the appropriately-named Summer's End corner of the island, is the bane of her family; her parents have bought a how-to book about coping with a "troubled child." In each other, however, they have found a soul-mate, so they do what soul mates often do: run away together. The fly in the ointment, so to speak, is their age. They want to get married, but they don't have a license, lack parental permission, and fail to meet the minimum age requirement allowed by law. Not that such things make much difference to them.

The sense of time and place couldn't be more forcefully presented. The year is 1965 and the location is a sparsely-populated island off the New England coast. Anderson has elected to shoot the movie much as it might have been made during the '60s, and it is suffused with a warm, sepia tinge - the color of nostalgia. The camera prefers tracking shots to close-ups and passes through walls to offer a cross-section of a house where some of the action transpires. Local history is provided via Bob Balaban who functions as a narrator, offering the kinds of observations one might find in a promotional period short. There's an undeniable tongue-in-cheek element to this but it serves its purpose.

The concept of young love is certainly not unique, but the tact employed by Anderson is. The leads are likeable and appealing but each possesses offbeat distinguishing traits. Suzy is never without her binoculars and Sam had taken up pipe smoking. Their physical and emotional ages might be 12, but they are smarter than most of the adults they encounter - a fact explicitly acknowledged by one in a moment of candor. They share a scene that is equal parts tenderness and awkwardness - a first kiss, a first grope, a first acknowledgment of arousal. Moonrise Kingdom is never salacious and sex is never much of an issue. Intimacy between the leads while they are on their own means reading to one another and absorbing the adventure of being in the wilderness without supervision. Sam and Suzy claim to have found "love" with each other; what they have discovered, in fact, is friendship - something neither has experience with.

Roughly half the running time is devoted to following the journey of Sam and Suzy as they wander from one dubious milestone to another on what is not a very large island. Their misadventures are interwoven with the efforts of adults to find them. These include Suzy's parents, Walt and Laura Bishop (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand); the scout master in charge of Sam's troupe, Ward (Edward Norton); and the local head of police, Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis). Later in the film, there are appearances by several other recognizable faces: Tilda Swinton as the local representative of Social Services, Jason Schwartzman as a helpful scout leader; and Harvey Keitel as the hard-assed commander of all scouts.

Anderson should be credited for casting two excellent unknowns in their first major film roles. Both Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman become their characters, exhibiting none of the stiltedness and uncertainty that sometimes accompanies neophytes. Their performances are natural; their chemistry is immediate and unforced. During the scenes when they alone occupy the screen, we see the world through their eyes without the distracting filter of an adult perspective. In a turnaround not unexpected from Anderson, it's the adults who come across as immature and silly.

Moonrise Kingdom reminded me a little of A Bridge to Terabithia, although the tones are different. The magical realism of the earlier film is barely hinted at here, and Moonrise Kingdom is more comedy than fantasy or drama. Both films, however, are founded on a strong connection between children of the opposite sex; that affection provides viewers with an easy point of entry. Of course, this being a Wes Anderson film, the comedy is often a little off-kilter, frequently deadpan, and rarely of the laugh-aloud, roll-on-the-floor variety. The movie is funny in an intellectual, low-key manner, but it is not as obscure or obtuse as that which defined The Darjeeling Limited or The Royal Tenenbaums. With Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson has blended the strengths evident in his past endeavors with a well-constructed, emotionally resonant story. The result is a pleasing 90 minute idyll.

Moonrise Kingdom (United States, 2012)

Run Time: 1:34
U.S. Release Date: 2012-05-25
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Sexual Content, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1