Review: Moonrise Kingdom


[This review was originally published last weekend. The film is now getting a wider release.]

When I wrote about the retro aesthetic of Wes Anderson, I mentioned ideas of homage and influence, precocious children, arrested development, dioramas, shoeboxes, fear of adulthood, and fairy tales. Moonrise Kingdom fits in that mold, though there’s an important difference. Rather than taking place in an uncertain time where the present day and a feel of the past is combined, Moonrise Kingdom takes place in 1965.

The year itself isn’t necessarily important; the fact that a specific year gets named is. It’s a film about nostalgia for a time and a place that’s no longer there, and for that magical feeling of first love. And that’s why Moonrise Kingdom, for all its kookiness and humor, has a very touching and sad undercurrent to it.

The year is 1965, and even if we try to recreate it today, we can never really have it again.

Moonrise Kingdom
Director: Wes Anderson
Release Date: May 25, 2012 (limited)
Rated: PG-13

There’s something special about young love. It’s simple and unsophisticated. You don’t worry about being cool or being coy, and you don’t have to deal with the messy adult hang-ups of history and sex. You just get that feeling for someone, and as kids you can mistake strong attachments for love, but it means a lot because that’s all you know. Everyone has an excuse to fumble around through young love. Eventually with the onset of adolescence, in comes the dreaded distinctions of like vs. like-like, love vs. hormones, and eventually whether or not you’re actually in a relationship or just dating. (Or worse yet, whether or not you actually went on a date with someone.)

It’s the simple form of attraction that’s shared between Suzy (Kara Hayward) and Sam (Jared Gilman) in Moonrise Kingdom. They’re two misfit kids who are troubled, lonely, and feel unloved. When you’ve only lived for 12 years, the first person your age who seems to get you may be the best person ever. (They’re perfect for each other, and maybe it’s only because they haven’t met that many people yet.) The kids strike up an unexpected correspondence after a Noah’s Ark play, and what goes on between them is like a love story they might have seen in a movie or read somewhere. They decide to run away together.

The whole fantasy of running away from home also plays big into Moonrise Kingdom, and actually speaks to a larger concern in Wes Anderson’s films. He’s always dealt with childlike perspectives of how the adult world works, or maybe childlike escape routes from the perils of the adult world. With Sam and Suzy, they believe they’re well-equipped for the rest of their lives even though all they have is a little bit of cat food and the basic woodland survival skills of a Khaki Scout. Like a youthful version of love, the young view of adulthood means that problems can be solved by throwing pine needles into the air.

The children are dead serious about everything. Sam’s fellow scouts treat it like the army. Sam’s sudden flight from the platoon is a serious kind of of offense, and the young lovers are pursued like fugitives and deserters rather than just goofy runaways. One of them is even accused of being a traitor, which is just the sort of hyperbole that fits the movie’s tone. These experiences and groups, as limited as they are, wind up meaning the whole world for these children. Play time is reality.

This is all part of that fairy tale-like feel in Moonrise Kingdom, evoked right off the bat with the title. It’s something that plays to Anderson’s strengths as a filmmaker. The worlds depicted in his films have a pervasive and consistent tone, even when they skew into unreality. All those Wes Anderson-isms are in the film as well. There’s the intelligent deadpan from characters of all ages. There’s quirkiness (in a pejorative or non-pejorative sense depending on how you feel about Anderson). There’s the pastiche of other films. There’s the costumes and accessories. There’s the diorama and dollhouse sets. There’s the vintage soundtrack, though in this case much of it seems to come from Anderson’s own childhood rather than his adult vinyl. There are a lot of cultured kid’s songs, with some Hank Williams Sr. and a dabble into seductive French pop (both possibly from his parents’s record collection).

Moonrise Kingdom won’t win Wes Anderson any converts. The fact the movie’s a period piece has allowed him to become even more vintage, and a lot of the film looks like it was run through an Instagram filter. It’s even more like a storybook tale than his previous movies. Suzy’s obsessed with young adult books and children’s books about strong young ladies with magic powers. That sense of enchantment has made its way into her own worldview and approach to life. Story time is reality too.

This is Anderson’s most overt riff on Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, and not just because there’s a dog in the movie named Snoopy. It’s all about the concerns of precocious kids rather than the concerns of adults who are still precocious kids inside. The adults mostly act their age in an off-kilter way. (The exception is Scout Master Ward played by Edward Norton, who’s given himself over to the Khaki Scouts completely with a childlike zeal.) Bill Murray and Frances McDormand play Suzy’s parents, and their lives seem helpless and loveless. Bruce Willis is Captain Sharp, a New Penzance Island police officer, and his life is a solitary one.

That’s where a lot of the sadness of Moonrise Kingdom begins to comes through. It’s not so overt throughout most of the movie, but the story eventually hits a certain note that makes so many other details in the film resonate. The kids act like adults and think they have all the answers, the adults seem helpless and don’t know what the answers are, and the kids are doomed to grow up. And to that, the kids are all on the cusp of adolescence, so childhood is about to come to an end. Anderson puts a lot of emphasis on his music choices, especially the closing song of each film, and the final song of Moonrise Kingdom is just right for that moment and this movie.

I go back to the idea of 1965 and why it’s important that a time is set. I wondered at the end where the characters in this film would be in the summer of 1969 and 1970 and on and on. And I also wondered what these characters in 1975 would think about that strange summer of 1965. Would they look back fondly at those memories? Would there still be letters kept in shoeboxes? Would the shoeboxes still be kept? If only life could always be so simple.

The more I think about it, Moonrise Kingdom becomes more poignant and mature than it initially seemed. I’d like to watch it again in the next few days just to see how the movie grows on me. The film was misprojected at the showtime I went to, with the very top and very bottom of the opening credits chopped off. While it irked me for a few minutes, I was swept up enough in the memories and feelings of young love that the cropping didn’t matter so much. A little bit of that retro fairy tale magic can work wonders sometimes.

On my way out of theater, a line had already formed for the next showing of Moonrise Kingdom. There were a few kids there with their parents. I imagined they were young fans of Fantastic Mr. Fox, and that they were the sorts of precocious children who might get this sort of stuff; eager would-be sophisticates destined to be overeducated. At this age, they’d simply be fumbling around to sound older, wiser, full of answers, and more adult, or at least what they think is more adult. Sure enough, a boy who had to be 10 years old tops said to a younger girl (maybe his sister), “Wes Anderson is a quirky auteur.” He added soon after, “I don’t know what that means.”

They grow up so fast.

Alex Katz: There’s not a cynical bone in Moonrise Kingdom, and it makes me so, so happy. This essentially-simple story of two young lovers against the world, even at the expense of better judgement, is just so deeply sweet and heart-warming, all while avoiding the overly-maudlin sensibilities that tend to be paired with the sweet and the heart-warming. A lot of this is thanks to the straightforward, heartwrenchingly authentic performances from Jared Gilman and Kayla Hayward, two astounding young actors that deserve acclaim. Their love is earnest and uncomplicated, the way we all want to believe love really is. Moonrise Kingdom is a modern fairy tale and a testament to the power of youth. 85- Exceptional

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.