It’s 1965, the rainy end of summer on the rocky coast of a fictional New England isle. Twelve-year-old Sam (Jared Gilman), a scrawny, bespectacled outcast with an unusual aptitude for cartography, disappears from the Khaki Scout camp, absconding with a couple of bedrolls and an air rifle, and leaving behind a “resignation” letter for scoutmaster Randy Ward (Edward Norton) to find. Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward)—a just-pubescent bad seed straddling the line between innocence and sexual precocity in a minidress paired with kneesocks and “Sunday-school shoes” —disappears from her own dollhouse-like home, her self-absorbed, distracted lawyer parents Laura (Frances McDormand) and Walt (Bill Murray) initially none the wiser. Soon enough, the law of the island, Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), knocks on Laura and Walt’s door while making the rounds in search of Sam, and Laura finds a box of “intimate” correspondence between the two kids—who met once, the summer before—suggesting they have run away together. Aided by what remains of Ward’s troop (“It’s a chance to do some first-class scouting!”), the grown-ups mobilize to find the fugitive young lovers and bring them back to safety—thereby wrecking Sam and Suzy’s thrilling, romantic idyll.
Shot on Super 16mm, the visible grain giving each image a wonderfully tactile depth and life, Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom is, in a lot of ways, the ur–Wes Anderson film. The director, who co-wrote the script with his Darjeeling Limited collaborator Roman Coppola, leaves his usual stylistic fingerprints—horizontal pans across the just-so tableau; the casting of Murray and Jason Schwartzman as a kind of know-it-all fixer (but not, noticeably, Owen Wilson, who has participated in every previous Anderson film); the hermetic world defined by its highly specific, often too-perfect design. But it’s also his most fully realized work: The tics that have sometimes distanced viewers from real emotions in his previous films (particularly, the fetishizing of analogue objects and characters who greet the world in costume, props in hand) are here much more integrated into the fabric of the film’s period construction and its story. And the newcomers to Anderson’s kingdom—Norton (a failed Marvel muscleman, having been replaced as the Hulk by Mark Ruffalo) and Willis (whose increasingly apparent age complicates his invincible badass persona)—are each given a chance to prove themselves as heroes in surprising ways.
Within Anderson’s filmography, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou might be the most direct precursor to Moonrise, in that both are essentially adventures—elaborate, larger-than-life movie-movies—and both are punctured by violence, with real consequences that seem shocking within the playful spaces Anderson meticulously creates. But Moonrise‘s story more directly references young-adult fantasy fiction, both the explicitly magical variety and the more earthbound strain featuring ordinary kids who manage to pull off extraordinary plots in an effort to shake off the constraints of a mundane life. The escape Sam engineers for the pair, making full use of his Khaki Scout survivalist training, is dangerous and crazy, but it’s also a way for the boy—an orphan who is on the verge of being dumped by his foster family—to exercise control and to show off his underappreciated talents to a receptive audience. Suzy doesn’t have it so bad at home, but she’s beautiful, angry for no specific reason, and bored, so Sam’s flattering gaze gives her something she isn’t getting, probably didn’t know she needed, and now won’t easily be able to live without.
Rated PG-13, Moonrise Kingdom takes the form of old-fashioned pre-teen literature, but, as everything made by Wes Anderson, does so knowingly. Set against a devastating storm, the outcome of the film’s gorgeously CGI-enhanced climactic adventure emphasizes both the ephemerality of pre-teen feelings and the ways in which our inability to go back and relive a cherished moment fossilizes it in memory. Its portrait of young love is both mature and defiantly utopian.
Suzy and Sam’s steadfast romanticism is a form of resistance, which is thrown into relief by the quiet despair of the adults in their lives. Lonely, even—or particularly—when not alone, the parents and authority figures in Moonrise have long ago given up on the possibility of transformative romance or love as salvation. Their melancholy situates Moonrise‘s fantasy in reality—which only makes the film’s swooning re-creation of Sam and Suzy’s foolish, first-time, future-blind leaps into the unknown all the more exhilarating.