With his meticulously composed shots, retro technologies and deadpan tone, director Wes Anderson has a voice that, love it or hate it, is distinctly his.
Those quirks are on full display in “Moonrise Kingdom,” a funny and twee tale of young love. Beautifully photographed, wonderfully acted and filled with surprising sweetness, it’s not only the director’s most Andersonesque film, but it may also be his best.
Taking place on a New England island in the 1960s, “Moonrise Kingdom” is the story of dutiful Khaki Scout Sam (Jared Gilman) and unruly teenager Suzy (Kara Howard), who met the previous summer and decide to run away together while they can still preserve the excitement of new love. Their escape disrupts life for the island’s residents, including Suzy’s emotionally estranged parents (Frances McDormand and Bill Murray), Sam’s sincere and committed Khaki Scout leader (Edward Norton), the local sheriff (Bruce Willis) and a social worker (Tilda Swinton) intent on bringing Sam back home after his foster parents refuse to let him return.
Anderson’s films often deal with the issue of community and his characters’ search for belonging, be it the eclectic prep school of “Rushmore” or the families at the center of “The Royal Tenenbaums,” “The Darjeeling Limited” and “The Fantastic Mr. Fox.” As Sam and Suzy look to escape their community and find a life of their own, the island’s residents each find themselves reassessing their own roles and understanding more about their place in the world.
Sam and Suzy feel displaced from their own families and friendships. A bit nerdy and obsessed with his scouting skills, Sam has been bounced out of his foster home and described as “troubled” following the death of his parents. While the Khaki Scouts might be the place where he could find acceptance, we quickly learn that he is not exactly the troop’s most popular member—a fact that’s underscored when the other scouts go out to find him, armed to the teeth.
Suzy, meanwhile, is angry and aware that things at home are not going well. Her father is distant and her mother is having an affair with the sheriff. It doesn’t bolster her self-esteem to know that her parents have purchased a book on how to raise a difficult child. So she has no problem running away with Sam, who impressed her with his boldness when he saw her at a church pageant.
Gilman and Howard aren’t the strongest actors, but there’s a tenderness to their love story that anchors the film. In them, Anderson captures first love in all its wonder and terror. He understands the way it makes a boy rise to the occasion—there’s great humor in watching Gilman proudly display his scouting prowess while leading Suzy through the woods—and makes a young woman feel beautiful – few scenes this year are as touching as Sam and Suzy’s solitary dance on the beach.
But their love story is just the catalyst that allows the island’s wonderful inhabitants to come together and explore their own roles. It’s no mistake that the film opens to a kids’ tutorial about orchestras that breaks each section apart to showcase their sounds before bringing them back together. “Moonrise Kingdom” does the same thing with its characters—takes disparate individuals and highlights how each of them are instrumental in achieving a happy ending.
Anderson always wrangles an impressive cast, but “Moonrise Kingdom” may have his best yet. Constant collaborators like Murray and Jason Schwartzman (who steals the show as an opportunistic scout leader across the lake) have long known how to bring Anderson’s deadpan prose to life and are able to sell each punch line. The newcomers all fit in perfectly, particularly Norton, who perfectly embodies the no-nonsense, ridiculously committed scout leader (he feels scouting is his true calling) and Willis, who brings gives his persona a twist by filling the sheriff with a touching loneliness. “Moonrise Kingdom” isn’t a film about good guys and bad guys, but about broken, imperfect people who find themselves rising to occasion in the film’s triumphant final act—something that’s more exciting than any superhero movie.
As said before, Anderson’s quirks are on full display. His shots are tidy and painstakingly composed and the film, filled with bright yellows and greens, has a beautiful retro look to it that’s almost like an Instagram photo come to life. The film’s final act—set during a harrowing thunderstorm—is gorgeously photographed with dark blues and blacks and there are moments that look like an old silent film. Few directors can nail a visual gag like Anderson, and his gift for deadpan dialogue has rarely been better—I particularly liked the brief existential discussion two young characters have about the death of a dog.
Anderson’s films are so stylized and the humor so dry that it’s easy to mistake them as cold and aloof, but there’s a warmth and sweetness to “Moonrise Kingdom” that even the director’s detractors could fall for. As always, Anderson eschews the easy emotional punch and instead delivers the film’s most touching moments in unexpected places, in a look that two characters give each other or the sight of a lonely man finally finding friendship. The outdoors setting gives the film a sense of energy that’s missing from some of Anderson’s efforts, and the anchoring love story supplies joy, heart and a little bit of danger—just like young love always does.
“Moonrise Kingdom” is a beautiful, funny joy of a movie that has only grown in my estimation the more time I think about it. It’s a confident culmination of all of Wes Anderson’s talents and a romantic, tenderhearted summer escape from the usual noise of summer.
Originally published in The Source.