Wes Anderson’s cinema seems to exist on a grid, and this has never been more apparent than in the opening shot of Moonrise Kingdom, in which the camera moves along a strict path in a household, introducing us to its rooms and inhabitants. Very quickly we already have such a strong sense of the character’s environment, in this case the young Suzy (Kara Hayward), whose pleasant looking home—a life-sized diorama of what should be the habitat for a happy family—is broken, but as Anderson lets on, only quietly so. No more than a couple minutes into the film, Anderon’s best qualities as a filmmaker are on display: his ability to build character through every facet of expression (mise en scène, framing, colour, performance, camera gesture), and his ability to reveal the flaws within what seems to be perfection. Anderson, known for his precision, exemplifies it here, but at the same time Moonrise Kingdom is his most free film since Bottle Rocket. He has developed a wonderful sense of when to depart his rigid aesthetics for simplicity and naturalism, and in the two young leads has found a subject more attuned to his form than ever before.
The two lead actors, Hayward, and Jared Gilman, who plays the orphaned Sam, each make their screen debuts in the film. Anderson seems to have cast them carefully, looking for slightly awkward, very normal looking children, whose performances would be far from perfect, and are all the better for it. In other terms, Anderson avoided a “Haley Joel Osment”, specifically choosing the kid who Shyamalan would have discarded. The choice is an intelligent one, that results in a relief from the tightly mannered performances that permeate Anderson’s work. Both Hayward and Gilman’s deliveries come wrapped in an apt naivete, one that clashes with the surprisingly mature way that they conduct themselves—a clash between their youth and their taste of independence. They act older than they are, like many children do, but the adults seem to be just as dishonest and fragile. Anderson renders the emotions of his characters on the same scale, be they young or old, as all of them struggle with similar issues of love and abandonment. It is in the film’s respect for children that its most potent beauty is found.
The most distinguishing feature of Moonrise Kingdom is its portrayal of children: their emotions, intelligence, validity and, most of all, their sexuality. It wouldn’t be something worth singling out if this were a French film, but to have a twelve-year old girl remark that she likes a boy’s erection in a mainstream, PG-rated American film is a big deal. That sort of frankness towards youth sexuality is an unusual occurrence on American screens—and a welcome one. Anderson’s honesty and tenderness towards his young subjects is something that would make Truffaut proud, and is rivaled in recent years only by Richard Linklater, whose gentle, naturalistic approach to direction in School of Rock also evoked the great French auteur’s name—and his allegiance to the young. The children in Moonrise Kingdom are more than happy to mange themselves without the meddling presence of adults, and are more than capable of doing so. Sam and Suzy make their way to each other and take off into the wild, where, with Sam’s boy scout skills, they use pulley systems for transporting their stuff, catch food, cover their tracks, fight off unwanted attention, and set up a camp on the shore (the best he’s ever seen, Edward Norton’s Scout Master Ward will later confess)—a utopia wherein they discover how to give voice to their feelings, and dance in their underwear. I’d venture to argue that such an image, one of two lovestruck twelve-year olds shaking it on a beach half-naked, is probably one of the best American images of youthful expression. This movie is theirs, before it is Anderson’s, and that’s what makes it one of his best films.
As for the adult cast, which includes a sidelined Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman, they are vital as contrast to the central couple. We see adults try to organize themselves but are mostly inept at dealing with their own problems. Alone, we witness them as being confused, insecure, and sad. None more so than Scout Master Ward, whose lonely nightly recording of the day’s camp activities, with one session that ends with him breaking down, is not given a solution—something Anderson usually likes to provide, even in his strongest works like The Royal Tenenbaums and The Darjeeling Limited. Wes Anderson has always interrupted his pop fantasies with real, affecting darkness. Doing it in a film of storybook compositions—Moonrise even more closely resembles the look of a children’s book than The Fantastic Mr. Fox—makes it all the more complicated, a children’s universe plagued by adultness. The film’s negotiating lightness and heaviness lend it a depth and authenticity of emotion, giving a weight to the otherwise cutsey Roald Dahlesque silliness. No interruption is more startling than when Walt (Murray) and Laura Bishop (Frances McDormand), the estranged mother and father of Suzy, are shown sleeping in separate beds. Walt stares up, and miserably states “I wish the roof would blow off and I’d be sucked into space”, to which Laura replies “stop feeling sorry for yourself”. Coupled with a crippling shot of the ceiling, its mundanity profound and its stubbornness relentless: it will not budge.
Combining this portrayal of failed adult romance—again, without solution—with such a lively, lovely portrayal of youthful romance is bittersweet. To what end will their love survive? Anderson gives us no indication, of course, but instead celebrates the discovery of romantic feeling, and, moreover, the discovery of another person’s mutual suffering and alienation as a means to find solace. In a flashback montage of letter-exchanging between Sam and Suzy, the momentous nature of such a discovery is captured splendidly. It is, after all, a film about how and why people find each other—perhaps all of Anderson’s films are. When Moonrise arrives at its climax, Sam is asked to accept an adult as his guardian, an establishment of trust that the film has been working toward. Set on a church roof against a mise en scène of dark blues on a stormy night, in an uncertain world, Sam reaches out his hand. The agreement will be on his terms. It’s a beautiful movie moment, a gesture not easily forgotten.
Post-Script: To think, I mentioned nothing of Anderson’s clever narration, delivered in direct address by Bob Balaban. Anderson has always tried to develop interesting ways to frame his stories with narration, but this may be his most ingenious way to situate the narrative in a reflexive context. One unforgettable shot: A beach at night, completely dark, Balaban switches on a light so he can be seen on camera, narrates in direct address, switches light off, the characters arrive on shore by boat.