After seven features, a Wes Anderson production is unmistakable: white, upper-middle-class dysfunctional families deadpanning wry dialogue amid meticulous mise-en-scène to an eclectic soundtrack. Also: exquisite, often centered, shot compositions; uninterrupted lateral tracking camerawork through dollhouse-like sets; and inserts of quasi-obscure cultural objects. The auteur’s calculated quality persists in his latest film as well, but where his past work can come off as chilly and detached, Moonrise Kingdom exudes a warmth and innocence generated by the earnest adolescent romance at its core.
The year is 1965, and the sleepy New England island of New Penzance is stirred to action when Khaki Scout Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) and local resident Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) run away together. Sam is gone by the time we arrive, so all the expository characterization we learn is from what others say about him: His fellow Scouts dislike him, and his foster parents don’t want him back. By the time we catch up with him, he certainly looks the part of an “emotionally disturbed” orphan: slight of frame with heavy black glasses, a coonskin cap and a shadow on his upper lip, his uniform plastered with merit badges, both official and homemade. He’s a boy yet and can’t always get his mouth around Anderson’s signature wit.
But Sam is full of surprises: He’s a quite skilled outdoorsman, and when he reunites with the mod girl with whom he’s been exchanging letters for a year, he matter-of-factly hands her a bouquet of wildflowers and begins imparting survival tips. There’s no indication that he considers her out of his league, nor does he express any skepticism at what she’s brought along: a suitcase of stolen library books, a record player and a kitten. Likewise, Suzy is an unexpected rebel with a volatile streak that upsets the balance among her lawyer parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) and three little brothers.
Meanwhile, the authorities have been galvanized: hangdog Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) and plucky, if outwitted, Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton) deputize the rest of Troop 55 to comb a wilderness as detailed as any Anderson set for the missing couple, and the severe Social Services (Tilda Swinton) is on her way to collect Sam.
Delightfully, Anderson and co-writer Roman Coppola avoid clichés at every opportunity. The forces that would typically work to tear Sam and Suzy apart instead rally behind them, perhaps infected by the conviction of their love, which never wavers, even in argument: “I love you, but you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
As always on an Anderson film, there’s much to be charmed by: The one-time lighthouse in which the Bishops reside. The various activities at Camp Ivanhoe, including mechanized latrines and a tree house perched high on a branchless trunk. Binoculars that bestow their wearer with special powers. An elaborate production of Noah’s Ark at the historic Trinity Church, where George Washington was a parishioner, complete with felt animal costumes reminiscent of Fantastic Mr. Fox. A soundtrack that juxtaposes Benjamin Britten and Hank Williams.
Moonrise Kingdom is whimsical and, yes, precious, but it is so in the very best sense of the word.
Director: Wes Anderson
Writers: Wes Anderson & Roman Coppola
Starring: Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Jared Gilman, Kara Hayward, Jason Schwartzman, Bob Balaban
Release Date: May 25, 2012