I know that somewhere within Moonrise Kingdom is a charming and poignant coming-of-age story. Unfortunately, whatever potential it had was ruined by director/co-writer Wes Anderson, whose perplexing cinematic sensibilities betray an inability to depict realistic characters we can actually invest in. There is no truth to this film. It depicts nothing more than odd people doing odd things for very odd reasons. We’re supposed to find this funny, but was the intention to laugh with the characters or at them? It’s a moot point since I didn’t laugh at all, although I did softly chuckle with incredulity at many points. It’s actually quite telling that the film takes place on an island off the coast of New England; as is the case with the locals inhabiting it, we have a story cut off from the rest of civilization, allowed to exist in its own narrow-minded little world.
Taking place in 1965, it tells the story two twelve-year-olds, the spectacled Sam (Jared Gilman) and the eye-shadowed Suzy (Kara Hayward), who fell in love after meeting backstage during a church play one year earlier. How and why they fell in love is anyone’s guess; during their first meeting, they do little apart from stare at each other with expressionless faces and speak in annoyingly droll monotones. Indeed, that’s how these characters always speak to each other. And oh, how I wished one of them had the ability to express an emotion. Anyway, their initial meeting led to a series of letters written and sent in secret. They then determined that they would run away together. Sam has what he believes to be the wherewithal to get them both across the island to a secluded location in the wilderness, as he’s a trained Khaki Scout with many badges to his name.
Sam – who smokes a pipe, despite being twelve – was taken in by a foster family following the demise of his birth parents. It’s precisely because of this that none of the other Scouts like him. When it’s reported that Sam has disappeared, his foster parents decide, rather nonchalantly, that they don’t want him to come back. Suzy, with her permed hair and neat dresses and shoes, has a bit of a psychotic streak, as evidenced when she stabs one of the Scouts with a pair of scissors. When she runs away, she brings with her a kitten, a mini record player, a French pop record, a series of obscure fantasy novels, and a pair of binoculars, which perpetually hang around her neck. She works towards making everyone apart from Sam despise her. This would include her parents, Walt (Bill Murray) and Laura (Frances McDormand), who are oddballs in their own right. The mom especially; she has to communicate to her three pouty boys with a megaphone.
A few adults join the search effort for Sam and Suzy. Apart from Suzy’s parents, we have Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton), a stickler for protocol, and Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), a police officer who’s having an affair with Laura. Ward brings with him his troop of Khaki Scouts, who each have their own colorful nicknames and talk like soldiers from a sanitized World War II movie. They’re eventually joined by Commander Pierce (Harvey Keitel), who’s even more militant than Ward about the Khaki Scouts. While on the run, making the strangest and most inexplicable of alliances, Sam and Suzy are introduced to Cousin Ben (Jason Schwartzman), who can hook you up with anything … so long as you can actually pay him. Meanwhile, a woman known only as Social Services (Tilda Swinton), who looks like a cross between a telephone operator and a flight attendant, makes it clear that Sam must be taken into protective custody.
Parts of the film are narrated by a character appropriately named Narrator (Bob Balaban), who dresses like an ice fisherman and provides little detail apart from descriptions of the island itself. He also provides us with a quip or two about an approaching storm that plays a very prominent role during the final act. All leads to a final confrontation on the steeple of the local church, at which point there’s thunder, lightning, and torrential sheets of rain pounding on Sam and Suzy. Captain Sharp is there too, although I won’t delve deeply into the reason why. Let is suffice to say that he has gotten to know Sam over a can of beer. Not a glass of milk or a bowl of tomato soup or a ham sandwich, but an honest to goodness can of beer.
Admittedly, Anderson shows creativity with his camerawork. During the opening credits, for example, we explore the rooms of Suzy’s home as if it were a cutaway section of dollhouse, the camera making very smooth and rigid pans in left, right, up, and down directions. Let it also be known that his use of color is unique; the palate of this film is comprised entirely of bright, bold shades of red, green, pink, and tan. But when it comes to plot and character, I don’t pretend to understand where his mind is at. When you describe Moonrise Kingdom as the story of runaway adolescents falling in love, it sounds very compelling. But there’s a big difference between a description and actually seeing something with your own eyes. If this movie were concerned with real characters and plausible situations, it would actually be worth seeing.
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