Moonrise Kingdom

June 3, 2012

This contains spoilers – suffice it say that I thought this was very good indeed and you should definitely go see it. 

There’s a moment a little ways into Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom in which the young boy Sam (Jared Gilman), who looks short, gawky, and desperately uncool with his thick-framed glasses, walks out of a local children’s production of Benjamin Britten’s Noye’s Fludde and through the backstage areas of the church where it’s being performed.  He finds his way to the dressing room, where a row of young girls dressed as birds are applying their make-up and preparing.  Looking directly at the camera, he asks, “What kind of bird are you?”  The girls turn around, and one starts to explain what they each are until Sam stops her mid-sentence and asks again, pointing directly at the camera and, it turns out, at one girl in particular: Suzy (Kara Hayward).  There’s an air of supreme confidence in the delivery, and Suzy’s reaction is to be instantly taken with him.  It feels like wish-fulfillment on Wes Anderson’s part – one imagines he would have loved to have taken young love by the throat and just gone for it the way Sam does – as well as feeling very reminiscent of Max Fischer in Rushmore, Anderson’s breakthrough film which was also about a boy determined to act with confidence.  Except, it’s different this time.  Where Fischer was vaguely absurd in his over-compensating manner and most could see through it, Sam is genuinely confident.  It’s a testament to just how good of a film Moonrise Kingdom is that we understand that confidence as a believable character trait and not just the wish fulfillment it might seem to be. 

I believe I previously wrote that, by this point in his career, you were either a fan of Anderson or you weren’t.  Once the critical consensus left him behind with The Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Limited – both of which I have grown to love despite their flaws – and his style seemed as though it was never going to drastically alter in a way that would appease the naysayers with Fantastic Mr. Fox, I had figured that you either liked his idiosyncrasies and his approach to character, or you didn’t, and that was fine.  With Moonrise, however, I just don’t believe that anymore.  This is not to say that the film is a huge departure stylistically (if anything, it’s the most “Wes Anderson-y” film he’s made, if you will excuse the term), but it’s done in such a way with the screenplay and the structure and the story and the performances that I no longer think “he’s all style and quirkiness” is a valid or understandable accusation.  It’s just too good to be dismissed out of hand.

Before the aforementioned first meeting between the two young stars, the film begins with an extended sequence showing Suzy’s home, soundtracked by an old recording of a child explaining the different pieces to an orchestral piece and their variations.  Suzy’s home is cut through like a string of sets that are just slightly too small without ever being cramped – there’s a motif throughout the film about escaping enclosed spaces.  It’s apparent that, like the music, this film is a variation on Anderson’s pet themes and style.  We then move to Camp Ivanhoe, where the “khaki scout” troop headed by Randy Ward (Edward Norton) discovers that Sam is missing.   The only police presence on the tiny island is Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), and he’s brought in to help with the search effort.  We learn that Sharp is having an affair with Suzy’s mother, Laura (Frances McDormand), who is in a distant if not overtly hostile marriage to Walt (Bill Murray).  Later on, Laura realizes that Suzy is missing as well, and eventually she finds the correspondence between the two kids that gives us their backstory (which is so full of little visual gags and crucial character information that it is perhaps the best exposition montage Anderson has ever given us).  The structure allows us to see the situation unfolding from the concerned parent/authority figure perspective and then making us understand the reasons why Sam and Suzy have decided to run away to the other side of the island together.  It’s not just good storytelling from an audience-interest standpoint; it gives us a view of the broken, sad adult relationships while at the same time enhancing Sam and Suzy’s love as something more than just childish folly, even if that is what it might turn out to be.  Anderson understands the gravity of young love, and perhaps most importantly, side steps the usual condescending perspective of an older, “wiser” person who only looks on it as a wistful time of innocent diversion before the real world kicks in.  It’s very much an experiential picture – two outcasts find solace and meaning in love to such an extent that even the adults appreciate it.

Central to appreciating the emotional importance of the relationship between Suzy and Sam comes from their time at an inlet on the island that has no name.  They settle down, pitch a camp, jump in the water, and dance to Francoise Hardy.  They awkwardly fumble through attempting to understand sexuality (when asked if he can French kiss, Sam replies that he thinks he can, but wants to know if there are any special rules).  We get to know Suzy’s violent impulses and her reasons for escaping into books.  We know of Sam’s obvious problems and the way he deals with them so directly when he matter-of-factly warns Suzy that he might wet the bed, and not to take offense to it.  In what I imagine will be one of the best exchanges of any film this year, they discuss Sam not having any parents:

Suzy: “I sometimes wish I was an orphan.  All my favourite characters are.”

Sam: “I love you, but you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

There’s an acknowledgment of the fantasy element of their romance and adventure, whilst at the same time an explicit nod towards the difficult realities that brought them together.  Sam talks of his foster parents as though he’s making headway with them and thinks he might have finally found something approximating a family, whilst we already know that the foster parents have told Captain Sharp and Ward that they don’t want him back.  The scene where Ward solemnly gives the letter confirming this to Sam later on is absolutely heartbreaking, and what really sticks is the way in which the adults aren’t just dismissive disciplinarians but people sympathetic to Sam and Suzy.

What differs from this film and Anderson’s others is the way in which the emotional cues are hit.  Anybody claiming his films have too much of an ironic distance in the characters to have any emotional drive seems absurd to me, but he has tended to achieve those moments by surprisingly breaking with strictly mannered formalism.  Richie Tenenbaum cutting his wrists is a shock because it looks and feels like nothing else that came before, and Chaz’s quick emotional breakdown to his estranged father works because it goes against the manners of everything else in that film.  Here, Anderson has a narrator inform us of an upcoming historic storm, down to the day in which it will occur, and even moreso, he ties the whole film in the aforementioned Benjamin Britten opera about Noah’s Flood.  That operatic sense of heightened events means the strictly controlled ‘designed’ feel of the film no longer represents a knowing detachment, but a purposeful coalescing of universal forces.  The strange scene where Sam is struck by lightning pays off, and amazingly works, when he kisses Suzy on the steeple before their possible leap to death and there’s a visible electric shock.  Such a thing, as well as the moment not long after where Captain Sharp says “Don’t let go” could have been too much, but as its framed within this operatic ethos, it works.

I haven’t even mentioned quite how funny the film is, and it is very funny.  There are the usual Anderson sight gags as well as the over-eloquent lines about entirely mundane things, but there’s been real effort by Anderson and his co-writer Roman Coppola to ensure that jokes are set up and paid off in a way that raises them above mere asides.  Anderson’s aesthetic works particularly well here, especially in the Camp Ivanhoe and Fort Lebanon scenes, as the makeshift nature of scouting forts, as absurd as they are here, lend themselves to his very specific set of visual constructions.

Still, it really comes down to the love story and the way Anderson treats the characters involved in it.  There’s a beautiful scene between McDormand and Murray where they attempt to work out their differences, and they admit how far they’ve fallen and how their children might not be enough to keep it together.  It’s the perfect contrast between the youthful, but very serious, love between Sam and Suzy.  It’s a testament to the beautiful optimism of the film that it doesn’t feel like a comment on the inevitability of the young love fading, but rather a stark reminder that this kind of thing takes effort and, above all, a mutual understanding.  We learn that the inlet where the kids spent their time was destroyed by the storm, but instead of feeling like a comment on the temporary nature of the youthful romance, we get the final scene of Sam painting and Suzy reading in her house.  It should have been obvious, but so taken in was I that I forgot the title of the film, and when that final painting was revealed, it was overwhelming.  The physical location of their brief, special time alone together might be gone, but it’s just as important that it lives on in their memories.  The general notion is that this kind of young “puppy” love fades, but Moonrise Kingdom, through Sam’s painting at the end and through the film itself, I believe, suggests that it doesn’t have to.

-M

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2 Responses to “Moonrise Kingdom”

  1. Jim Says:

    Well written. I noticed in the last scene that Suzy’s kitten was now a full-grown cat, a further testament to their lasting love.

  2. girls shoes Says:

    Nice replies in return of this issue with firm arguments and telling the whole thing regarding that.


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