Moonrise Kingdom -- Wes Anderson's Best Yet
Once in a while a movie is privileged to have excellent writing, acting and directing. Even more rare is having these all come together in the same film with relative unknowns shining past veteran actors. In Moonrise Kingdom, Wes Anderson, (The Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Royal Tennenbaums,) introduces us to New Penzance Island off the coast of New England where history and cataclysm form the setting for a Norman Rockwell-worthy first love panorama.
Wes Anderson shared that his meticulously constructed island came out of a mixture of the very real Cornwall vacation spot on the southern tip of England and the Gilbert and Sullivan musical about the pirates that frequented the place. One look at the photo at the top of this article and you know that this clever, charming tale of young love in the face of overwhelming obstacles is no ordinary love story. From beginning to end, the movie shines with the inventiveness and endearing tenacity of two misfits who have found acceptance and a sense of home with each other despite distraught parents, the police captain, the scout master, the scouts themselves and the ominous social services.
Anderson assembled a remarkable cast of actors--Bruce Willis as the troubled Captain Sharp, Frances McDormand as the unsatisfied Laura Bishop, Bill Murray as the reclusive Walt Bishop, Edward Norton, the totally dedicated Scout Master Randy Ward, Tilda Swinton as Social Services, Harvey Keitel as Scout Commander Pierce and Jason Shwartzman as Cousin Ben. To the credit of Anderson and every one of this ensemble cast, rather than dominate their scenes, they each furnish a carefully tuned accompaniment to the solo performances by the two twelve year olds, Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) and Suzy Bishop(Kara Hayward.)
Sam and Suzy are an unlikely pair of romantic leads. Sam is an orphan barely making it in the foster care system while Suzy is a pre-teen with a short fuse that gets her into constant trouble. Sam is an accomplished Khaki Scout who earns the respect of Scoutmaster Ward, but no one else in the Troup. Suzy listens to a portable record player and escapes into fantasy novels. Sam paints watercolors and sometimes nudes. Their plan to run away together enfolds at the beginning of the film, but gradually we find out that Sam and Suzy met on the island the previous summer during a fabulously costumed church performance of Noye's Fludde by Benjamin Britten.
It was love at first sight. Sam is bored and wanders into the girls' dressing room where Suzy and others sit before a mirror in marvelous handmade bird costumes. "What kind of bird are you?" Sam asks, looking into Suzy's eyes. One of the girls says something about hers and others and Sam interrupts, still looking into Suzy's eyes which are meeting his with equal intensity: "No, I said what kind of bird are you!" pointing at Suzy.
In a rapid succession of frames, the exchange of letters between them while they are apart for the year, bring us up to date with the knitting together of hearts and their decision to run away together the following summer.
Anderson is known for his incredible frame shots, filled with meticulous details and shot with care by Robert Yeoman, with whom Anderson has collaborated six times. You feel as if you are walking through a vibrant, nostalgic portrait of the 1960's, each frame a carefully assembled scrapbook montage that is quintessentially Wes Anderson. The score is flavored with French pop tunes and crooners that flawlessly accompany the script.
One by one the frames give us more of the story. Suzy's parents, the Bishops are attorneys who have difficulties in their relationship and in handling their troubling daughter. The angst ridden police captain (Bruce Willis) fills the void in Mrs. Bishop's life (Frances McDormand) while the Scout Master (Edward Norton) lovingly stumbles through his role as a dedicated leader to scouts who are clearly more mature. Adding to the feeling we have of familiarity with the setting is an island expert (Bob Balaban), who gives historical background and authoritatively narrates the unfolding events.
It is not the first time that writers have used young love to turn a community upside down and set the stage for romance on the run, but never before have I seen such an honest, funny and disarming portrayal. Whether it is battling the deputized Khaki Scouts or pitching tents and dancing to French tunes or the frank adolescent innocence, Moonrise Kingdom soars and is utterly convincing as a magical place that we all have visited at times in our minds. We are torn between identifying with them overcoming their daunting obstacles and laughing out loud at the wonderful jokes, the dialogue and the antics of concerned but familiarly flawed adults.
At no time are we bothered by the sensitive subject of adolescent love because they never really go there. They are just so adorably twelve. Their quirky natures comfortably resonate with each other and everyone in the audience is rooting for these two to elude the frantic pursuers and continue to enjoy the idyllic world Anderson so marvelously created for them.
Moonrise Kingdom reminds us of what it was like to be misunderstood, but it also reminds us of what it felt like to discover someone just as quirky and different as ourselves but who likes us just the way we are. It is beautiful to watch, it is moving to hear, inspiring and hilarious and filled with some of the best scenes I have encountered in a long time. It is my favorite film of the year so far and if you want to be thought clever and insightful, recommend it to your friends before the Academy gives it ten or so nominations.
I have to confess I have not adored many of Wes Anderson's films. I like them, I respect them and have been entirely entertained by most of them. They all seemed to me to be a sort of practice at one or more of the cinematic arts that make them so much his trademark. With Moonrise Kingdom, I finally see what he was practicing for. The carefully constructed frames full of authentic, plastic 60's nostalgia, the careful attention to score, the use of super 16mm long shots and meticulous short ones, the scouring of Rhode Island geography to find the exact spots he saw in his mind, the developing of a family of actors, writers, producers and artisans who share his vision and finally finding a story of youthful love worthy of the whole ensemble fighting to save all came together in one masterpiece of art that will be the hallmark of his films.
The movie opens with little kids, Suzy and her parents listening to a portable record player discussing how an orchestra takes a theme and then develops it. In Moonrise Kingdom, we feel we are part of a symphony that builds a frame at a time in intensity until with the finale of a record breaking storm, we are standing in the rain and lightning, cheering the conductor and the two soloists who against all odds cling to the one thing that makes sense in their lives--each other.
It's summer. Take a break and treat yourself to a rare and wonderful adventure. I guarantee you will lose years and gain an appreciation of life you thought was lost while you laugh out loud more than you have in a long, long time.