Before I get to what I thought of Moonrise Kingdom, I think a little context is in order: I’ve never really been a Wes Anderson fan. Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums are usually cited as his best films. I turned Rushmore off halfway through because I found Jason Schwartzman’s Max Fischer insufferable. After that, I couldn’t bring myself to watch Tenenbaums.
That’s not to say I hate all his movies. Fantastic Mr. Fox had its moments, and Bottle Rocket made good use of the Wilson brothers. But neither film really knocked me out.
To put it more succinctly, I wasn’t tremendously hopeful for Moonrise Kingdom.
I loved Moonrise Kingdom.
It’s a simple setup. Set in 1965 New England, the film follows the exploits of two preteens who’ve fallen in love and decided to run away and live in the wilderness.
First, there’s Sam (played by first-timer Jared Gilman). He’s a bespectacled, gawky-looking orphan stuck at a Khaki Scouts summer camp, surrounded by other kids who shun him. Sporting a coonskin cap and a backpack almost as big as he is, Sam appears ready for anything.
Then there’s Suzy (played by Kara Hayward, another newcomer). She’s the daughter of two lawyers (played by Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) who own a summer home near the camp. She arrives at the rendezvous with Sam in a pink dress, white knee-high socks, and gobs of blue eyeshadow, which accentuate her already piercing gaze. She’s brought items like books, cat food, and a record player (side note on music: don’t watch this movie unless you want “Le Temps De L’Amour” by Françoise Hardy stuck in your head for about a week afterwards). But despite her apparent lack of preparation, Suzy proves to be just as determined to gain her independence as Sam.
Joining the cast of adults who’re looking for Sam and Suzy are Edward Norton as Scoutmaster Ward, Bruce Willis as Captain Sharp, and Tilda Swinton as Social Services (yes, the character’s actually called that). Oh yeah, Harvey Keitel, Jason Schwartzman and Bob Balaban also show up in supporting roles. As usual, Anderson has attracted a ton of acting talent.
There’s really a lot to like here, and most of it boils down to Gilman and Hayward. This isn’t to say the other actors hold things back, they’re all great. But the focus is on the kids, and the movie works because of them. There’s a very subdued, low-key quality to their performances. There’s a sense that these two misfits really do love each other, and from that comes the emotional investment. You want to see them happy and together at the film’s end.
If you look at how Rushmore is set up (this is last time I’m bringing up another film in this review, I promise), you’ve got Max Fischer as this precocious, obnoxious, whiny kid. He’s just not a character I really root for. The kids in Moonrise Kingdom are definitely precocious, but they aren’t obnoxious and they certainly aren’t whiny. Both actors give earnest performances, which makes the laughs they do elicit here and there all the more satisfying. It’s the difference between trying really hard to be funny instead of just naturally being funny.
Really, I think the acting and onscreen chemistry displayed by Gilman and Hayward should be enough to prompt even the most cynical viewer to make the trek to the theatre. But if that doesn’t do it for you, let me also take a moment to praise the look of Moonrise Kingdom.
As he has on each of his six other feature films, Anderson teams with cinematographer Robert Yeoman for Moonrise Kingdom. The results are gorgeous to behold. The camera tracks and pans this way and that through Suzy’s home as we’re introduced to her family early in the film. Later on when Sam and Suzy are hiding out in the forest, everything has an appropriately lush and idyllic look to it. And the film is packed with singular images (my favourite is that of a tree house perched precariously atop a tall, skinny, bare trunk).
Like that teetering tree fort, Moonrise Kingdom itself is a balancing act. With a story like this one, it’d be all too easy for things to get too precious, too cutesy, too twee. But all these troubles are sidestepped thanks to the heartfelt relationship at the centre of the film. It’s all too guileless to be seen as anything other than what it is: a nice, sweet, and tremendously entertaining film.