An auteur is defined as a filmmaker who influences their movies so much that they rank as their author. With his latest charmingly and familiarly quirky Moonrise Kingdom, director Wes Anderson once again leaves no doubt that this film like The Royal Tannenbaums or The Fantastic Mr. Fox before it is a creation all his own. From the first skittle-coated frame to its wondrous finale, this is a film full of charm, real emotions, and grace. Seemingly one of the only major original voices left in Hollywood, Anderson has followed up his funniest film (Mr. Fox) with his most intimate, ranking right up there as one of his finest accomplishments to date and shows the continued refinement of a curious and engaging artist.
The film tells the story of a 1960’s town in Maine and two pained adolescents, Sam and Suzy (Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward) who after a year of correspondence decide to run away together. Hot on their trail are a group of local boy scouts (led by Edward Norton as Scout Master Ward), the island sheriff Captain Sharpe (Bruce Willis) and Suzy’s parents (Frances McDormand and Bill Murray). Along the way the two look to come to grips with questions that all of us have asked at one time or another and deal with the first pangs of love, hoping all the while to avoid becoming like the desensitized adults and mean-spirited children that populate their world.
Led by a wonderful screenplay by Anderson, this is a film not about its individual jokes (although there are certain laugh out loud moments unrivaled by anything to have been released thus far this year), but the sum of their parts and built not on one liners, but rewardingly deep and intimately drawn characters. Not a laugh riot, this insightful piece is about discovery: discovery of the new, discovery of pain and ultimately the discovery of love.
One thing that a Wes Anderson film has always had is a brilliant ensemble. From Bottle Rocket to The Life Aquatic with Steve Zizzou, it has been hard to imagine the casts that Anderson has assembled fitting together or feeling more like a family with almost any other director. Moonrise Kingdom is no exception to this rule, once again bringing out the best of its cast including refreshing performances from both Bruce Willis and Edward Norton who seem to have climbed out of the creative craters they had been stuck in recently. As Scout Master Ward, Norton brings an earnest sincerity that produces some of the funniest moments in the film, while also grounding the story with the character’s evident passion. Willis too is brilliant, bringing to life perhaps the warmest character he has ever played; less bad ass and more teddy bear, his Captain Sharpe is one whose pain and love stick with you long after the credits have rolled. The ever reliable Bill Murray, Harvey Keitel, Jason Schwartzman and Frances McDormand also deliver good turns, if not slightly hampered by the relative lack of weight given to them by the script.
While each member of the cast shines, bringing his or her all to every moment, it is Gilman and Hayward along with Anderson himself that are the true stars of this endeavor. The pair shares a goofy and yet realistic chemistry, bringing out all the awkwardness one would expect of the two social misfits while never becoming quirky for quirks sake like some of Anderson’s characters have in the past, nor do they ever feel overly precious or twee. Indeed, many of the strongest sequences of the film involve none of the film’s veterans, but rather occur when the two children are together, trying out new things or coming to grips with the harsh realities of the world around them. When one of the children laughs at an inappropriate moment and brings the other to tears, it reminds the audience that despite the vocabulary or skills gifted to them by the script that these two are not adults, but two very confused and scared kids who want the fairytales they have grown up with for themselves, but are not quite sure how to reach them or if they have ever existed at all.
This is a theme that rings throughout the film; examining the lives of several characters that seem disappointed with the course their stories have led them on. In one of the film’s most tender scenes Murray and McDormand lay on separate beds and Murray laments, saying sarcastically, “I hope the storm tears the roof off and takes me away. You’d be better off.” It seems that many of the characters share his belief, wondering where they fit in, if at all. While the film doesn’t provide answers for everyone, it does end in such a way as to offer the hope that the fairytale can be true and redemption for some of its characters, including one of the child bullies, who in one of the film’s most hilarious moment exclaims “Damn us! Why did we hate Sam so much?”, moving the protagonist’s tormentors from funny plot devices to real people.
While the script and characters are two of the best elements of the film, it is worth mentioning just how well refined Anderson’s direction has become. While at times his style plays as perhaps a bit too pompous, it is obvious that not a single frame of this beautiful film came about by happenstance or random chance. This was the result of a meticulous master, filled with immaculate details, gorgeous design work, and perhaps best of all, a depth of feeling not seen in the director’s work since The Royal Tannenbaums. While Anderson has always been known for his great character work, there is also some wonderfully cinematic shots of nature and effects work on display here as well. While telling perhaps his smallest tale in terms of the stakes involved, this is also his most technically accomplished film and ambitious film to date.
While it’s possible to go on and on about the riches in this film, both expected and unexpected a like, suffice it to say that this is a gem of a film, signaling the continued growth of a master and showing the fear and joy of what is to be a child and what it means to really experience love.