Moonrise Kingdom, Wes Anderson's seventh film, is less of a new, original work than an amalgamation of everything he's learned since 1996's Sundance darling Bottle Rocket. For a filmmaker who fetishizes the music, designs, and cultures of the ever-further-away 1960s, this should not come as a surprise. The surprise comes in how he takes these tropes and weaves them into an entirely new and wonderful story, one which focuses on our helplessness in the face of love. No matter how you old are, Moonrise posits (correctly) we're always twelve years old when we fall.
Jared Gilman, in his first screen role, stars as Sam, a foster child dumped at a summer camp with the Khaki Scouts (think Boy Scouts without paying royalties) on an island in New England. When he breaks out of camp, it's unclear which crime is more egregious: that he escaped, or that he ruined the meticulously regimented morning routine of Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton, hearkening back to his excellent form in the criminally underrated Death to Smoochy). They alert Captain Sharp – a quiet, unsure Bruce Willis, long removed from fighting harrier jets with 18-wheelers – who jumps to the case ... slowly. When they contact the foster home, the “parents” politely decline to take the boy back, thus orphaning the orphan. Child Services, embodied by Tilda Swinton, is dispatched on the island to take the boy to his new barracks in an orphanage. The only question is if she arrives on shore before the approaching monsoon, a storm which ranks among that century's worst.
But Sam couldn't care less. He has stolen away with Suzy (a searing Kaya Hayward, also in her debut performance), the anxious, angry, rambunctious girl he met the previous year at a play on Noah's Ark (clever, clever). An island native, she lives with her parents, Bill Murray and Frances McDormand as Mr. and Mrs. Bishop, who treat their marriage less like a partnership than a constant cross examination. Suzy reads to her three younger brothers like an erstwhile Wendy Darling, which makes Sam a runty Peter Pan, whether he's from the Lost Boys of his oppressive foster family or his fellow merciless Khaki Scouts, drawn with great depth and hilarity by Anderson and co-writer Roman Coppola. After a breathless montage featuring Sam and Suzy's desperate love letters brings us up to date with a year's correspondence, they finally find themselves making a go of it together in the island's wilderness.
Theirs isn't the only slightly-immature romance brewing. After another contentious discussion with her partner-in-law, Mrs. Bishop hops on her bike to share a secluded cigarette with Captain Sharp, like two kids hiding behind the middle school as they discuss their star-crossed non-love affair. There is more … well I wouldn't say sophistication, so we'll go with honesty ... at play between Sam and Suzy, whose courting includes fishing, underwear-only dips in the ocean, and a trip to second base that's as awkward as it is true to life. The two share a common need to escape, and thankfully find the other to escape to and with. Watch this movie and not get transported to your first kiss, your first date, your first love. I dare you.
This feeling is no doubt buoyed by the performances of these young newcomers, aided by Anderson's experience honing Jason Schwartzman's performance as the iconic Max Fisher in Rushmore. You can see his career arc in a nearly film-stealing cameo as the kind of black market goods dealer you can find in a POW camp … or a sleep away camp. What Gilman lacks in early line readings he more than makes up for in bravado. While he swaggers around, Hayward deals in nuance, crafting a Suzy that has many layers surrounding a thoroughly melancholy center.
They are surrounded by solid performances throughout a diverse mix of actors young and old, inexperienced and cinematic legends. I won't spoil the big mustachioed cameo; suffice it to say it adds the proper amount of gravity to the head of a group as prestigious as the Khaki Scouts. You need only see Edward Norton effortlessly fall into submission amidst a platoon of pre-teens to feel the power and respect.
There is some bit of a letdown in Moonrise for me, as it so thoroughly dives right back in to the usual Anderson milieu after he showed signs of escape with the brilliant 2007 film, The Darjeeling Limited – also co-written with Coppola. But there is still the requisite stretching of his esthetic, engaging in long, uncut takes that are constantly on the move, always dollying left to right. The movement gives this film a feeling of propelled motion, moving towards the inevitable historic storm told to us by the omniscient Bob Balaban, who narrates the story in the present with the surety of what is to come.
Balaban's narrator helps craft this movie for what it is: a fairy tale. Although the opening hints at a bit of science fiction (Suzy's an avid sci-fi reader; several books take up most of the space in her wilderness survival pack), there is a breezy nature of love and loss under dire circumstances that would scare adults: natural disasters, divorce, uncertain futures, litigation, and bureaucracy – surely the scariest of them all. While the adults weigh all the obstacles, tempering their desires, the kids get right on with it, trusting in the purity of an uncorrupted love. They'll do whatever it takes to be together: rules, lightning strikes, broken dams, and betrayal be damned.
Moonrise works both as a capstone as well as an introduction to Anderson's work. Veterans will see the many allusions to his previous works and feel right at home. While it might feel a bit trite, as you'll immediately recognize Dignan's cockeyed ambition, Max's inner torment, Richie and Margot's deeply felt sadness, the hard-earned wisdom of Francis, Peter and Jack, and the sense of adventure in Mr. Fox, all couched in and around the water surrounding the Belafonte. All these elements mix together to create something altogether different and similar. Less a retread than a crowning achievement, I've admired this film the further distanced I am from it. I'm sure Anderson would understand.