Moonrise Kingdom is set in 1965 on an isolated New England island, at the waning end of summer, which as it turns out is the perfect setting for a Wes Anderson story. Really, all his movies have been set on islands: isolated worlds (Fantastic Mr. Fox), stunted relationships (Bottle Rocket), suffocating privilege (Darjeeling Limited), dollhouse families (Royal Tenenbaums), ships at sea (Life Aquatic), sequestered settings touched only by his cloud-like imagination and off-shore sensibilities.
Moonrise opens with a Zissou-dressed narrator (apparently the beanie never dies) who outlines the basic topography of the island and tells us that in three days, a storm is coming, and so we wait and watch to see what will be carried in on the wind. This is a story about two lonely children and the end of summer is a perfect choice, because what for youth is sadder than the end of summer? We know that children cling to summer’s long hours, but we also know that the storm (adulthood) is inevitable. Time always tells. Longtime Anderson collaborator Robert Yeoman adds to this pull between preserving youth while acquiescing to age, by giving the film an Instagrammed quality; faded daisy-center yellow permeates the landscape, and there’s a washed-out quality to everything as if we’re looking back at life through a haze. This purposeful aesthetic choice is meant to induce nostalgia, as if we can only look at the traumas of childhood if we are slightly anesthetized.
Many of Anderson’s films feature men revolving around one complicated woman and Moonrise is no exception. The film’s young male protagonist is Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman), an orphan who escapes from his Khaki Scout camp in order to be reunited with Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward), a girl he met once backstage at a school play and has been courting through letters (rendered in a lovely epistolary montage) ever since. The two “lovers” (what horrible adult part of me just put that in quotes?) run away and meet in a field, she dressed in saddle shoes and knee-highs, toting her Francoise Hardy records and a kitten, he smoking a corncob pipe. He’s a pre-Max Fischer type, she’s a pre-Margot Tenenbaum, and Anderson lets us know that their whole future depends on this particular chapter of their lives as children. They set off on their escape, loaded with an endless supply of quirks (lefty scissors?!), and while their emotional baggage is more than they can bear, at least they have each other.
One of Suzy’s trademarks (and a classic Anderson detail) is the pair of binoculars she always wears around her neck; there’s a reason Suzy Bishop is constantly looking at the world through these limited lenses – it’s because she can’t handle the big picture: a panoramic display of pathetic adults.
We have Suzy Bishop’s parents, the Bishops, a married set of lawyers (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) who sleep in twin beds and refer to each other by their professional titles. Murray sleeps and drinks through the film (and his acting), while McDormand is magnetic as usual but underutilized as Mrs. Bishop. She’s having an affair with the island’s cop, Captain Sharp, played by Bruce Willis who delivers one of the gentlest performances of his career. Rounding out the cast of adults in pursuit is Khaki Scout Master Ward (Ed Norton), naïve but earnest, and in the end just as lonely as the rest.
These are the adults Suzy and Sam have to look up to (up may not be the right direction), and this is the central problem. Anderson’s portraits of adults are really just portraits of unresolved childhood traumas; he seems to be asserting that we are our childhoods. When Suzy and Sam run away, they’re running from what they assume are the inevitable realities of adulthood, escaping into an idealized world of childhood acceptance and honesty (my actual childhood memories are a little different from that).
Where Mr. and Mrs. Bishop have learned to cope with each other’s faults and failings—one through infidelity, the other through alcohol and disconnection—the children are actually enamored with the other’s flaws, even taking delight and refuge in their psychological peccadilloes. For Suzy, Sam is the first person, and as far as we know the only person, who not only understands her dark moods and violent temper (those lefty scissors make a handy weapon), but seems drawn to them as well.
The film feels personal, perhaps more so than any of Anderson’s other work; when the credits rolled it came as no surprise that the film is dedicated to his girlfriend, as it’s definitely the sweetest, most direct love letter he’s penned to date.
In many ways, Moonrise is a testimony not only to how to love but how to live artistically. Sam and Suzy just want to play records and love one another and seek adventure in their own way. Sounds reasonable right? Suzy likes to read books and Sam likes to paint watercolors. When Suzy questions Sam about what a poem is, he assures her, “Poems don’t always have to rhyme, you know. They’re just supposed to be creative.”
Some people have taken issue with Anderson’s work (it seems everyone is conflicted about loving his films), expressing a frustration with his aesthetic obsessions and his ability to shirk substance. They seem to want his work to transcend its quirky formalism. Sure many of his films have problematic underpinnings: an unexamined relationship to colonialism, a propensity for fetishizing the working class, and an almost pathological insistence that women are crazy. But aside from that, people adore his oeuvre, and it’s easy to see why. On top of the formalistic amuse bouches in every frame, and the long dolly shots that make you feel as though you’re wheeling through life, Anderson’s films have a poignant center about what it’s like to preserve the wonder of childhood in the midst of grueling adult realities.
Even if you thought you couldn’t bear any more of his trust-fund antics, there’s still much to admire and enjoy in Moonrise, an elementary film so slight and sweet it seems as if he made it in an afternoon. If you’re looking for a great leap forward though, Moonrise won’t scratch that itch. I will say this: to those who argue that Anderson refuses to grow up – based on his portrayal of adult life, can you really blame him?
When it comes to Anderson, this time around I feel like taking an extra tender response to his extra tender film. It’s as if he’s set himself up for less scrutiny than usual because he’s made a film about the heartbreak of childhood. Who could take too much issue with that? As Scout Master Ward says to the Khaki Scouts searching for the runaway orphan, “Your mission is to find him, not to hurt him.” Good advice for those exploring a gifted filmmaker’s labor of love.