Wes Anderson's latest film is his best since Rushmore.
There was a time, following the jolt of intergenerational perplexity that was Rushmore, when Wes Anderson's career seemed set on a disappointing trajectory: the almost suffocating portraiture of The Royal Tenenbaums; the choppy, half-hearted absurdism of The Life Aquatic; the borderline distasteful ethno-tourism of The Darjeeling Limited.
And then, the re-set. By supplying him with an original text and a format—stop-motion animation—so twee as to be essentially twee-proof, Fantastic Mr. Fox enabled Anderson to jump the track of his own roller-coaster descent. Judging from his latest, Moonrise Kingdom, his promising new course has stuck. The film is Anderson's best live-action feature—his best feature, period—since Rushmore, in part because, like that film, it takes as its primary subject matter odd, precocious children, rather than the damaged and dissatisfied adults they will one day become.
The movie, which takes place in 1965, opens with a cross-stitch portrait of a red New England vacation home with its own small, built-in lighthouse. The portrait, we soon see, hangs in that selfsame red vacation home. (Yes, this is a Wes Anderson movie.) This is the warm-weather abode of Walt and Laura Bishop (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand), two attorneys who have been drifting apart, their marital estrangement signified by the name of the property: Summer's End.
But this is only peripherally the story of Walt and Laura, or of their three young sons. Rather, it is the tale of their "difficult" eldest child, 12-year-old Suzy (Kara Hayward) and another young misfit with whom she—there really is no better word for it—elopes. This would be Sam (Jared Gilman), a serious, bespectacled, and unpopular boy who fell in love with Suzy the prior year, when he saw her playing the raven in a summer production of Benjamin Britten's Noye's Fludde. (It is one of several references to the composer in the film.)
Sam goes AWOL from his troop of Khaki Scouts at nearby Camp Ivanhoe to rendezvous with Suzy. United, the two disappear into the wooded thickets of New Penzance Island—the name itself is worth the price of admission—Suzy with her binoculars and pastel suitcases and battery-powered record player; Sam with his coonskin cap and corncob pipe and abundance of camping gear. There, in the dappled forests and sunswept coves, the two young runaways discover freedom, and companionship, and the early, innocent rumblings of sex. As they follow their trail of pseudo-maturity, they are of course sought after by an escalatingly (and understandably) frantic brigade of adults: Suzy's parents, the local police captain (Bruce Willis), and Sam's scoutmaster (Edward Norton). As this last informs the young scouts he's dragooned into the hunt: "This is not just a rescue party. This is a great scouting opportunity."
The book is awash with echoes of children's adventure fiction, from Tom Sawyer to Treasure Island to A High Wind in Jamaica. Underage though they may be, the kids are resourceful, optimistic, capable of loyalty and love—all the qualities with which their elders struggle. It's worth noting that this is the rare tale set in 1965 in which most of the adults are single, and the one marriage to which we are introduced is an unhappy one. (Well, the one legally binding marriage: I should cite here a hilarious cameo by Jason Schwartzman as a renegade scoutmaster with a weakness for performing age-inappropriate matrimonies.)
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Moonrise Kingdom is touching, bittersweet, and very, very funny. Cinematographer Robert Yeoman, Anderson's usual collaborator, evokes the the feel of New England (the film was shot in Rhode Island) so precisely that the story's locale need never be mentioned. And the script, by Anderson with Roman Coppola, captures the indolent yet enterprising texture of childhood summers, the sense of having a limited amount of time in which to do unlimited things. The performances are excellent across the board, from the adults who recognize that their best is never quite good enough, to the kids who realize they will be forced to make up the deficit. On the former side, Norton and (particularly) Willis are standouts; on the latter, newcomer Gilman, as Sam, offers a portrait of a boy trying to will himself into premature manhood so indelible that it can almost almost compete with (then-newcomer) Schwartzman's Max Fischer in Rushmore.
This should hardly come as a surprise. Anderson's forays into the travails of adulthood—even young-adulthood, as in Tenenbaums and Darjeeling—have never been as moving as his examinations of the triumphs and complications of precocious youth. Sam and Suzy will no doubt one day be like Walt and Laura Bishop, or Royal Tenenbaum, or Steve Zissou: encumbered with disappointment and regret, with jobs and kids and spouses and houses. But for now they are still alive to a world whose possibilities are constrained only by resolve and ingenuity, both of which they have in abundance.
With Fantastic Mr. Fox, Anderson made a kids movie for grownups; with Moonrise Kingdom, he has made a grownup movie about kids. It may lack the glorious ferocity and tenderness of Where the Wild Things Are—another film about an island runaway and the new family he tries to construct. Yet in its whimsical way, it raises the same questions about how children are to navigate passage through a world so full of flawed adults. At one point in the film, Laura Bishop reminds her husband that they must persevere for the sake of the kids: "We're all they've got, Walt." He replies: "That's not enough." Of course, it isn't. It never has been, and never will be. But somehow, they find their way through nonetheless.