REVIEW: No one will walk into a Wes Anderson film with high expectations of experiencing “reality.” His movies are works of a skewered fantasy, not fantastical, but certainly off center. Moonrise Kingdom, set in 1965, is the story of two children on the very cusp of maturity, soon to be teenagers and already feeling well out of sorts with the very small world they live in. Sam (Jared Gilman) has no family. His parents died when he was young and has been involved with child services most of his life, never truly fitting in with foster care. The home he is in now is populated with several similar looking older boys who (all wearing white T’s and faded denims) treat the peculiar Sam with a requisite amount of indifference and occasional mild violence. A member of the Khakis Scout club spending the remaining weeks of summer camping on the film’s only location (the fictional New Penzance), an island off the coast of New England, he has become disillusioned with the regiment and the fellow scouts who don’t understand him and has decided to go AWOL as it were, leaving the camp and resigning from the troop by escaping into the night.
Then there is Suzy (Kara Hayward), a 12-year-old girl who lives with her erudite family in the island’s lighthouse, where her parents spend their time apart in separate rooms always reading while her three young brothers listen to records about classical music. She enjoys novels about girl heroes who live in far away worlds and has developed a rebellious attitude that reflects in her time at home and in school. Sullen, introverted and yet inspired, she has a passion for learning and always carries a pair of binoculars to make things closer, often even pointing them at the audience.
The two met a year ago and have been pen pals every since, progressively planning a secret runaway adventure, which they finally do on this early September morning. Sam is well-trained in wilderness skills and has come to their rendezvous spot in a meadow with an assortment of survival gear, including a tent, cooking materials, maps and an air rifle. Suzy has come in a short dress, bobby socks and saddle shoes, a suitcase with books, a portable, battery-powered record player and a kitten in a basket, along with cans of cat food. They are heading for an out-of-the-way cove on the Chicksaw Trail and hope to build a life there, if not for a short time.
Quirkiness is the name of the game of Anderson, and it often works remarkably well, as it does here. Another inspired cast of characters stand in limited motion in the center of the screen and dole out their odd dialog with great effect, as Anderson knows exceedingly well how to do. Naturally, since Anderson is involved, Bill Murray makes an appearance, and is as usual, pitch perfect. So too are Edward Norton as the Khaki Scout’s leader, Frances McDormand as Murray’s wife and Bruce Willis as the local sheriff and secret lover to McDormand. Best of all are the children though, who are just oddball enough to be interesting and endearing enough to be watchable. Both are lanky and awkward, which serves them well, as this is the time in their lives for change and the melancholy atmosphere that permeates throughout the production makes for an altogether different kind of film. This film is also a departure of sorts for Anderson as this time we don’t have dissatisfied adults in ever-increasingly troubling situations, but now children, and it makes for something oddly more sympathetic for grownups watching. Anderson is also famous for his color schemes and here, the scenery is doused in subdued pastel greens and yellows with hints of blue and red, giving the movie a kind of storybook impression. One’s enjoyment of this well-received and critically-lauded film will depend on how well one accepts Anderson’s approach, which has always kept his work far removed from mainstream appeal. Sometimes dark, always serious, despite the comical overtones, Moonrise Kingdom is a place worthy of a visit.
That Moment In: Moonrise Kingdom
Scene Setup: The children have met and are eluding the posse looking to find them. The island, despite its small size, is heavily wooded and without a single paved road. Sam has a well thought-out plan, which he inadvertently revealed to his cartographer instructor, to take his young love to a tiny inlet that he thinks can be their new home. Donned in his Khaki Scout’s uniform and raccoon skin cap, he escorts his new lady through the woods, helping her across ravines, and over streams. At one point, they meet the members of the Khaki Scouts deputized by the sheriff to hunt down Sam and Suzy. They have weapons and are eager to recapture the two, if for anything, just to be tormenting. They outnumber the two runaways, but in an off-camera scuffle, are bloodied and beaten by the ferocious pair, who hurriedly make an escape and find their way to the cove. They set up camp, go for a swim, Sam makes her beetle earrings, and then they have their first real talk.
The Moment (Timestamp 00:42:48): Sitting atop a rocky peak just above their camp, the two are cast in the dreary gray mist of the late afternoon. Her hair is decorated in tiny flowers and Sam has one tucked above his ear. After hearing her explain why she always wears binoculars, he says it reminds him of poetry and asks her what she wants to be when she grows up. She admits that she wants to travel and not be stuck in one place, to which he echoes exactly the same. He smacks his lips with uncertainty and confesses that he may wet the bed later, just so she won’t be offended. She stares honestly into his eyes and tells him, okay, clearly willing to accept this small foible. She deflects the conversation to a lapel pin on his shirt that is wholly unlike the myriad of accomplishment buttons adorning his uniform. He tells her it is a broach, an heirloom from his mother, and that he knows a male shouldn’t wear it, but doesn’t give a damn. She asks if he thinks his foster parents will forgive him, to which he says, yes, feeling that for once he feels like part of a family, not like hers, but close, not knowing that those same foster parents have already given up and forfeited their care of him. She says that she wishes she was an orphan, since most of her favorite book character are also, believing their lives are special. He pauses and stares deeply into her eyes, then tells her he loves her but that she doesn’t know what she is talking about. She realizes this truth and tells him she loves him, too. The scene cuts to them on the beach in the growing haze, now in their underwear dancing to a French record on her portable player where he leans in and gives the girl a kiss. She then presses him to go further, in concert with the music to try a French kiss where “the tongues touch each other.” He becomes aroused and she invites him touch her chest. The moment ends with her reading him a selection from a book and falling asleep in the tent.
The conversation between these two young adults is especially important as it reflects the kind of dialog a healthy relationship should include and establishes that these two are indeed ready for maturity, even if their experiences haven’t prepared them for it. The genuine affection they have for each other is touching, and the need to tell someone about even the most vulnerable aspect of ourselves is easily recognizable by anyone who has ever fallen in love. Grownups watching understand the difficulty in confessing a shortcoming, or exposing a perceived fault and the joy in having the other fully accept it with no reservations. What’s particularly moving about this moment is its rawness, how the two seem to be truly learning about each other and how absolutely adult they seem. Meanwhile, Alexandre Desplat‘s very moving score radiates below the young actors and gives the scene immeasurable weight.
Anderson does the right thing by cutting next to the beach scene and following this conversation, which explores the couples’ resolve for each other, with their moment of first intimacy. The lapping waves and French music accompany them, but the chemistry between them is so achingly pure, it reminds any adult watching of their first time in the arms of a first love, and the tender steps of physical exploration that join. Their frankness with the situation, their limited knowledge but awareness of what is happening and the delicate yearning and curiosity they have feels perfect when following the confessions on the rocks above.
Watch, too how these moments are visually metaphorical, as those rocks, steep and precarious, represent their own awkward and insecure emotions, each word so fragile, the slightest wrong move, and like their bodies, could tumble to disaster. Once free of those vulnerabilities, they move to the security of the beach and now we have the whole of the ocean behind them, an open sea of mystery and unknown, their feet just at the shore. It’s powerful imagery and reason why this moment is so memorable.