CANNES – By now, if you are at all familiar with the work of Wes Anderson, you have no doubt come to some opinion about his general aesthetic choices. He has a very particular sensibility in his work, and it has evolved over time, although his harshest critics might claim it has ossified. I like his voice, his approach to character, and his compositional sense, and in general, I find Anderson’s films to be enjoyable because I know what I’m getting when I sit down to one. All that changes is the story he’s telling, and in the case of “Moonrise Kingdom,” I think he’s at his very best, energized by the subject matter and blessed with a cast that came ready to play.
“Moonrise” takes place in the days before a historic storm that sweeps through a small island community in 1965, as Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward), two 12-year-olds, run away together, sure that they have no place in their respective families and desperate for a connection that means something. Their decision ends up sending shockwaves through the community around them, including Suzy’s parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand), Sam’s scoutmaster (Edward Norton), and the sheriff of the island (Bruce Willis). Like much of Anderson’s work, the film is often very funny, but there is a deep longing that underlines everything we see, and in the end, I was moved by what he’s saying here, and by the work of his entire cast.
Co-written with Roman Coppola, the script is all about the way love binds us, whether by choice or by birth, and how complicated that one simple word can be. I know that for me, “love” means myriad things, and it sometimes seems crazy that four letters can describe something as big and as contradictory as “love.” The love I have for my parents, the love I have for my children, the love I have for my wife, the love I have for my friends… none of these are precisely the same thing, but all of them are significant and mean something to me. Each version of love ties me to other people, to a community, to a family, to a larger world. There is the love that simply happens, that I did not seek out in any way, and there is love that I fought for and that I work at every day. There is love that is uncomplicated and nurturing, and there is love that tears at me and that keeps me up at night. In “Moonrise Kingdom,” Sam and Suzy are both at that age where they are starting to try to define their own place in the world. Sam is a recent orphan, suddenly adrift, and Suzy represents something that he chooses, something from which he can draw strength and a sense of identity. Suzy is at odds with her parents, disappointed by her mother, old enough to realize that their marriage doesn’t work, and she sees Sam as a chance to do things right, to be accepted in all her flaws.
Community and family are major elements of Anderson’s work, and one of the things I find most interesting about the film is the setting. New Penzance is a small New England island with no paved roads, and the people who live there do so by choice. There is a very closed, isolated quality to it, and these are people who have found a place where they fit, where their eccentricities seem natural and normal, and where they are allowed to be themselves. That’s what filmmaking is, in a way, and it makes sense that Anderson is able to evoke this world so ably. Robert Yeoman’s photography has a sort of burnished postcard quality, setting the images out of a contemporary time, and while the visual choices Anderson makes will not surprise his most ardent admirers, I think they are particularly appropriate here. Suzy is a voracious reader, and the books she reads feature young people on grand adventures. This entire film feels like Suzy’s memory of the summer where she lived her own version of one of those adventures, right down to Bob Balaban serving as a narrator. It’s an effective, involving way to tell the story, and it becomes very evocative.
There is something special about that first love, that first time you meet someone who you feel drawn to, and Anderson expertly captures those feelings in the sequences where Sam and Suzy are able to find refuge from the rest of the world and simply be with each other. Their happiness is fleeting, though, since everyone is chasing them, and that urgency helps Anderson as a storyteller. There’s no fat on the movie, no sense of indulgence. Even when we digress to meet characters like a Scout supply clerk played by Jason Schwartzman, there’s still this constant pressing sense of larger forces closing in on our young leads, and it makes what could easily be a series of charming but disconnected scenes feel imperative. Technically, the film’s as accomplished as one could ask for, and there is a lovely handmade quality to everything. Early on, we see a church pageant that is quite striking, low-tech but beautiful, and that’s how the film itself feels. I love the Alexandre Desplat score and the use of music here. Once again, Randall Poster feels like an essential collaborator for Anderson, and the use of cuts including “The Young Person’s Guide To The Orchestra, Op. 34 (Themes A-F)” by Benjamin Britten or Hank Williams tracks like “Take These Chains From My Heart” and “Kaw-Liga” or the Schubert tracks all seem perfectly chosen, perfectly deployed.
Gilman and Hayward are exquisite as Sam and Suzy, and I like that they don’t look like polished, perfect Disney Channel kids. They have big personalities that are just starting to come into focus, and they feel like real kids, struggling with the disappointments that are inherent to the maturation process. Suzy, for example, knows that her parents aren’t in love anymore and that her mother has feelings for someone else, and it infuriates and disillusions her. It reinforces her image of the imperfect world of adults and makes her feel alone, and that’s exactly why Sam seems perfect for her. He’s lost his parents, and the groups he’s turned to for support, including his foster family and the Khaki Scouts, seem to dislike him on a deeply personal level. He’s as alone as she feels, and together, the two of them find some sense of solace from the ugly truths of the world.
The adults in the film are all great. Bill Murray and Frances McDormand suggest so much about the marriage of the Bishops with just a few scenes and body language, and Bruce Willis does really lovely, subtle work here that is free of any movie star vanity. It’s easy sometimes to forget just how good Willis can be, or how heartbreak seems to be one of the colors that is easiest for him to paint. Tilda Swinton plays the closest thing the film has to a bad guy, and she makes some big choices in just a few minutes of screen time that really work. Edward Norton, as Scoutmaster Randy Ward, is one of my favorite things about the movie, and I love the way he treats the kids who are his charges. Scouting means something to him. He’s made this life for himself, and it matters, and he loves it. Norton takes this role and imbues it with a degree of feeling that is surprising and quite affecting, and it’s one of my favorite things he’s done in a while.
All in all, “Moonrise Kingdom” is one of those films that seems slight on the surface, but there’s so much emotion in it, so much genuine heartfelt observation, that I have a feeling it will grow the more I think about it, and that a second viewing will simply underline the feelings I have about it already. Wes Anderson may have a distinct and easily recognized style, but his talent is genuine and his love of his characters rings loud and true in this film. He may make it look easy because of how firmly his mannerisms are established at this point, but it takes a real artist to evoke the rocky emotional storms of adolescence and adulthood with such clear eyes and precise voice. “Moonrise Kingdom” is the real deal.
“Moonrise Kingdom” opens in limited release in the US on May 25, 2012.