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Young Love, First Love: The Moonrise Kingdom Review

May 28, 2012

I’m not always a fan of Tom Carson, the film critic for GQ – especially when he goes off on one of his “The movies and filmmakers of the 70’s everyone praises always sucked and always will” rants – but he definitely had a point in a column he did a few years ago, when he wondered why our most high-profile filmmakers weren’t interested in making good love stories. He pointed out, rightly, while classic Hollywood directors like John Ford and Howard Hawks made movies that would have felt right at home in today’s testosterone-heavy movie environment, they also were adept at making love stories, either within their genre work, or in straight romantic comedies. Not only that, but they would have looked askance at films that seemed to treat romance as something to either be avoided or treated gingerly. I don’t know if Wes Anderson’s latest film, Moonrise Kingdom, will meet Carson’s criteria as a good love story – particularly since it’s a story of young love – but it worked for me.

The young lovers in question are Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward), both 12 years old and living in the New England area in early September of 1965, and both outcasts. Sam is an orphan who isn’t happy in school, with his foster family (Larry Pine plays his foster father), or the Khaki Scouts troupe he’s currently enrolled in for the summer (the other kids all hate him). Suzy has three younger brothers and lives with her parents Walt (Bill Murray) and Laura (Frances McDormand); both are lawyers, and both regard Suzy as a rebellious and problem child (Suzy discovers a book her parents have to that effect). In a flashback, we see they met a year before the story starts, at a school play Suzy is in where the kids are dressed as animals (Sam sneaks into the girls’ dressing room and asks Suzy what kind of bird she is), and they began writing to each other. So when Suzy turns up missing one day that summer, it turns out she’s off to meet Sam, who has in turn run away from the Khaki Scouts (Scout Master Randy Ward’s (Edward Norton) memorable reaction; “Jiminy Cricket, he flew the coop!”). While Sam and Suzy go on a hike around the island of New Penzance (where, as narrator Bob Balaban tells us, the entire film takes place), the adults, in particular Scout Master Ward and Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) – the island policeman, who’s conducting an affair with Laura, another reason Suzy is upset with her parents – try to find them.

Ever since Anderson burst on the scene in 1996 with Bottle Rocket, he’s been both praised and denigrated for his highly stylized movies. Critics admit his movies are well-designed and unique, but they find him cold and hermetic, trying to shut out the real world in place of his fake one. But this misses a couple of crucial things about Anderson’s films. For one, there’s a melancholy element to all of Anderson’s characters, starting with his biggest hit Rushmore (Bill Murray’s character was stuck in a loveless marriage, while Olivia Williams’ teacher character was a widow). His characters also tend to be outcasts in some way, even if, or maybe because of, their talents, from Max Fischer being prolific in extra-curricular activities to each of the Tenenbaums being a success of sorts in different fields, and even to the Fantastic Mr. Fox, who’s a good thief but maybe not a good husband and definitely a lousy father. Most importantly, I think what critics miss about Anderson is every movie he’s ever done is, in some ways, a fable, or at least has fable-like qualities. For some reason, this genre is easier for people to accept if the story is animated or told in a fantasy setting (which may explain why The Fantastic Mr. Fox was embraced by non-Anderson fans); a somewhat realistic setting, on the other hand, seems to turn some critics off, and I’m not sure I understand why. It’s especially appropriate with this movie, which, like Rushmore, is about young love (though not in the same way), and love at that age can often have a somewhat otherworldly feel.

The characters in Moonrise Kingdom, then, fit right in with Anderson’s usual unhappy misfits. As I noted above, Sam and Suzy don’t fit in with regards to their respective homes, even though you can see what they have to offer. Sam is a very good outdoorsman, and has learned to live well in the wild; he’s also an artist (he’s drawn Suzy a few times). Suzy, on the other hand, is bookish (she brings a number of them along, as well as her brother’s record player) but worldly (her blue eye-shadow adds to that worldly effect she gives off). The adults are also misfits in a sense. Though Ward tries to run an efficient camp, he often seems to come up short – especially after Sam goes missing – especially in the eyes of Commander Pierce (Harvey Keitel), the leader of the Khaki Scouts. The Bishops sleep in separate beds and seem to communicate mostly through Laura yelling on a megaphone; Walt, especially after he finds out about his wife’s infidelity, is especially morose. Finally, Captain Sharp is the only policeman on the island, and therefore lonely (despite his affair with Laura, which doesn’t seem to be doing him much good); also, whether because he’s seen kids in Sam’s position or because he was in the foster system himself, Sharp is sympathetic to Sam’s position, especially when Social Services (in the form of Tilda Swinton) shows up, wanting to put Sam into a foster home.

And yet, less this sound like too much of a downer, Anderson also catches the joy and wonder of first love. In this sense, it’s appropriate Suzy is a fan of adventure stories, because the camping trip and hike she and Sam go on is a kind of adventure. Not just an outdoor adventure – though we do get to see the outdoors in both its glory and danger – but an emotional one, and even a somewhat sexual one that is chaste but refreshingly avoids being coy. Later in the movie, they go to Ben (Jason Schwartzman), another Scout Master and cousin to one of the Khaki Scouts (the one false note in the movie is how the kids who had mistreated Sam all of a sudden decide to come to his aid), and he offers to “marry” them, but asks if they’re serious. He thinks they’re being glib (especially, in a hilarious bit, when he asks them to stop chewing their gum), but we can tell by this point Sam and Suzy really mean it.

One of the other hallmarks of a Wes Anderson movie is his use of music. Though they make completely different kinds of movies, the one thing he has in common with Quentin Tarantino is while they will occasionally use the well-worn classic, most of the time, they go off the beaten path (also, it seems like they’re using their own personal record/CD collection; unlike some critics, I don’t consider that a bad thing). Along with the score (this time by Alexandre Desplat, though Mark Mothersbaugh, who wrote the scores to Anderson’s first four films, wrote some incidental music here), Anderson uses two musicians primarily; the works of Benjamin Britten (particularly “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra”; make sure you watch the closing credits for a good use of this), and songs by Hank Williams Sr. These strange bedfellows end up striking a nice balance; Britten’s music lends itself well to the fable style Anderson is using, while Williams, of course, provides the heartbreak and sadness.

Though Anderson has only directed seven features and two shorts to date, he’s already starting to build up a stock company of sorts.  One change here is Anderson relies less on that than usual; the only regulars of his stock company who appear here are Murray (who’s been in everything Anderson’s directed since Rushmore) and Schwartzman (who did three features and one short with him). Not only that, but they both essentially play supporting roles, particularly Schwartzman, who nonetheless makes the most of his limited screen time. It could be argued Murray’s henpecked husband here is basically a variation on the one he  played in The Royal Tenenbaums, but he still makes an impression. The newcomers also come off well, though Keitel and Swinton admittedly don’t get much to do (Swinton at least finds the comedy in her role). McDormand is good at showing both the self-absorbed aspects of her character and her character’s eventual realization at what she’s become. Norton has worked so infrequently of late it’s easy to forget how good an actor he can be, and he’s very good here as the well-meaning if often beleaguered scoutmaster. And Willis would seem to be an odd choice for Anderson’s universe, but he’s surprisingly touching as the most rational adult here, especially when he tries to connect with Sam. Of course, as in any love story, it all depends on the two leads, and it may seem especially daunting when you remember both Gilman and Hayward are first-time actors. Add to the fact they have to handle most of Anderson’s trademark dialogue – having his characters give elaborate explanations about what they have to face – and you can see they have their work cut out for them. However, they are up to the task. Part of why they both make an impression here is they don’t seem like child actors. Both of them seem preternaturally grave – Sam smokes a pipe, and Suzy, of course, is wearing that eye-shadow – and yet both are also realistically awkward, of themselves and around each other. It’s said the road to love, especially young love, is never smooth, and even if Moonrise Kingdom is essentially a fable, Anderson respects that lack of smoothness, and that’s why this is a very good film.

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