Starring: Jared Gilman, Kara Hayward, Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Harvey Keitel
Running Time: 94 min.
★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
The word "genius" probably gets thrown around a little too much, but after viewing Moonrise Kingdom, it's even clearer Wes Anderson just might be one of the few filmmakers working today who's rightfully earned the tag. How else can you explain the world he creates in this? Literally a world all its own. And you know you're watching one of his movies before the credits even start to roll. From the costume and set design to the film stock, to the title font to the dialogue and even the actors chosen to deliver it, there's definitely nothing else out there that resembles a Wes Anderson movie. This effort stands as the biggest example of that yet, and also maybe his most personal. Of course, some will still call this "pretentious" "twee" or "hipsterish" but they weren't the audience for this anyway, and would still have trouble denying it's the work of a seriously talented artist. No one else can do exactly what he does and any perceived problems with the the film only exist because his idiosyncratic sensibilities can be so off-putting that it's sometimes hard to find an entry point. But once you find it and surrender to the eccentricity there's no turning back. The movie's set in the 1960's but looks and feels how an imaginary memory wishes the 60's looked and felt like, with a visual aesthetic and production design that's unforgettable, making it seem as if it could be made and released successfully during that era. And try remembering the last picture starring two children that was squarely aimed at adults. I'm still not sure if it's completely perfect, but its messiness and craziness is part of what make it so endearing, and a real keeper likely to continue reaping rewards on repeated viewings.
It's 1965 and 12-year-old Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) is spending the summer as a khaki scout at Camp Ivanhoe on the small New England island of New Penzance. Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) lives on the "Summer's End" portion of this island with her eccentric attorney parents Walt (Bill Murray) and Laura (Frances McDormand) and her younger brothers. But Sam and Suzy's paths crossed a year earlier when, in one of the films best scenes, they meet during a church production of Noye's Fludde, becoming pen pals and vowing to run away together the following year. After making good on their promise, Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton) is horrified to wake up and discover, in a clever touch, an escape hole cut in the side of Sam's tent. Enlisting the help of the island's dour police Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), the Scout troop and Suzy's parents, a search is underway for the two young refugees who have set up camp in a secluded area on the beach, complete with Suzy's record player and books. With a violent hurricane approaching, their prepubescent romance blooms and they even make plans to marry, but the search team is closing in, as is a "Social Services" representative (Tilda Swinton) who plans to stick Sam in juvenile detention because his foster parents no longer want him. Now the troubled Sam and Suzy, experiencing the only true friendship each has known, are at risk of being torn apart by comically clueless adults who could probably learn more than a few things about life from them.
The movie makes no qualms about the fact that Sam and Suzy two kind of messed up kids with dysfunctional upbringings and exhibit anti-social behavior that makes it difficult for either to make friends. Sam's entire Scout troop detests him while Suzy is shown in flashbacks fighting at school and discovering a book her parents bought on how to deal with a "troubled" child. In actuality, they're just super smart, sensitive kids who seem to have been done a disservice by the adult authority figures in their lives who are epitomized by, though not limited to, Suzy's endearingly wacko parents expertly played by Murray and McDormand. What's so special about the story is the juxtaposition between the excitement and happiness felt by these tweens experiencing their first blush of puppy love and these depressed, cynical adults have even less direction in their lives and prove to be comically incompetent when it comes to any kind of decision making. It's no wonder Tilda Swinton's "social services" (yes, the character's actual name) gets involved, yet we root against her anyway knowing it's Sam she wants to punish. This conflict between these clever kids and the dumb adults is where must of the script's intelligent humor comes from, and it's a subtle, sophisticated type that slides under the radar at times and demands the viewers' full attention.
In their big screen debuts, child actors Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward simply become Sam and Suzy. There's no other way to put it, as neither exhibit signs they're ever "acting" like precocious kids. Both are brilliantly understated, with Hayward making Suzy the more worldly of the two as Gilman perfects the outsider geek. The adult cast is the best rounded up in some time, with Bruce Willis playing a melancholy type of part we're not often used to seeing him in. It's easy to forget just how great a dramatic actor he can be when pushed by the right director, and he's definitely pushed by Anderson here, giving a really quiet performance that's just filled with depth and complexity. It's a comedy and this shouldn't work, yet Captain Sharp's sadness and the bond he forms with Sam is somehow one of the most touching aspects of the picture. His scenes with the him are gold, with Willis subtly suggesting there's perhaps a whole other movie that could have been made exploring how his character got to the point where he is. Similarly, Edward Norton Scout Master Ward as a kindly leader who not only feels responsible for Sam's disappearance and dreads the prospect of facing the stern Commander Pierce (Harvey Keitel), but wants to use this an instructional lesson for the kids. It's the best role Norton's had in ages and he's strangely perfect for it. Jason Schwartzman memorably cameos has a character named Cousin Ben, a relative of one of the scouts who volunteers to perform an unusual ceremony. And it wouldn't be a Wes Anderson movie without a narrator (Bob Balaban), who takes us on what could kind of be considered a tour of all the various locations on the fictitious island.
The experience of watching this does in a way mirror the experience of watching Rushmore, The Life Aquatic, The Royal Tenenbaums, but times ten. It's a movie very much in love with its own characters, it's imagined setting and the time period and wants the viewer to be to. It's something you either respond to it or you don't and how you feel about Anderson's unique style will completely determine it. It's not his absolute best, but it seems like his most mature, merging style with substance in a seamlessly to tell his story. Creating a world from scratch isn't easy and in many ways Anderson could be considered the J.D. Salinger of modern movies, his efforts always featuring complex, novelistic characters seen through the warm glow of nostalgia. At only just over 90 minutes, we get more than we could have possibly asked for and there were even points where I simply didn't want it to end. But even as comical as Moonrise Kingdom is, it's underlying themes suggest almost an unbearably sad, bittersweet coming-of-age story. Sam and Suzy will grow up, probably never see each other again and possibly mature into the misguided adults who were searching for them. The film's biggest feat is somehow making that potential outcome seem weirdly satisfying.