In Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom,” things begin in a bright red home whose interior and occupants are filmed as if they were part of a toy set, the naturalistic appearance of the world outside heightening the calculated formality of the human constructs. Anderson’s films feature mannered characters making their way worlds that inherently see them as foreign, even as these environments are recognizable as somewhat fantastical.
Anderson’s style, which can be enthralling (“The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox”) or exasperating (“The Darjeeling Limited”), lend his works an almost ineffable quality, presenting dramas that differ from our own in terms of realism but consistently hit recognizably human notes. “Moonrise Kingdom” proves to be the purest example of his approach yet, his offbeat sensibilities imbuing the occupants of New Penzance, a lovely (fictional) New England isle, with a uniform richness of character not normally afforded his entire cast. Realism is always the goal, but it’s emotional realism, not physical, that films need, and this captures that perfectly.
The film’s heroes are 12-year-olds Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward), two wounded souls escaping their respective guardians for a few days of idyllic romance. Sam, on the island as part of a Scouts trip, is rebellious, resourceful kid whose stoic countenance certainly conceals profound sorrow. Suzy, who lives on the island, is a sharp, rebellious girl.
When they meet, one can sense it’s as much about taking refuge from their regular lives as it is about their affections for one another. Sam is a recent orphan, his parents deceased of unstated causes, normally living at a boy’s home where the other kids treat him with less than kindness. Suzy has ditched her parents (Anderson staple Bill Murray and Frances McDormand), one of those couples who supply with their children with adequate material possessions but allow their own wounds to harm the children. They aren’t bad people or even bad parents, but kids can tell when their parents are deeply unhappy.
The kids’ wilderness excursion presents some of the most delightful, complex coming of age material ever put to screen. Sam and Suzy’s ages place them right at the magic spot where one’s childish impulses co-exist with an aching awareness of how lonely and bleak life will treat them. But this isn’t to say that Anderson’s films are bleak. On the contrary, his heroes tend to be men and women who eventually find solace through the redemptive kindness of others, his stories about the way light can break through the dark.
Anderson’s characters always inhabit a mannered society, one where people treasure the formality of things such as letters and titles. His work treats life almost as a process, a series of procedures to be followed. This may not be how we as people behave, but it certainly resembles how we remember things, ordered and just a bit absurd.
Anderson’s use of his actors has been among the best of any director in recent years. Anderson’s use of Murray in 1998’s “Rushmore” was the cinematic equivalent of a light bulb over the film world’s head, illuminating to the world to see the actor’s capabilities as a profound, powerful dramatic lead. With “Moonrise Kingdom,” Anderson does not let us down, getting note-perfect performances out of his varied cast, which includes Edward Norton and the great Tilda Swinton.
The best performance comes from Bruce Willis as Captain Sharp, the island’s sole policeman. Sporting a meek pair of glasses and a demeanor to match, Sharp’s dedicated quest to protect the lost children contrasts quietly with his hopelessly sad personal life. Sam and Captain Sharp become unlikely sides of the same coin, discontent handled in and out of maturity. It’s really quite something that by the film’s end, we believe that happiness is possible for all involved. This is a marvelous work, like a song one lets wash over them so that they can feel the beats of the beautiful music.
5 out of 5