In "Moonrise Kingdom," Wes Anderson, the quirky filmmaker of such films as "Rushmore," "The Royal Tenenbaums" and "Darjeeling Limited," heads to summer camp for a sweet, melancholy exploration of young love.
The film is set in 1965 on isolated island off the coast of New England. As "Moonrise Kingdom" opens Sam (Jared Gilman), a camper at a boy scout camp, has gone AWOL to meet up with Suzy (Kara Hayward), a girl he met the previous summer. Through year-long letter correspondence, the pair plan to escape on a 10-day hiking trip of their own.
Gilman and Hayward, making their acting debuts, are splendid. Sam and Suzy are both given odd quirks that if overplayed could have become too cute, but, under Anderson's direction, Gilman and Hayward are natural and believable. They capture all the uncertainty and awkwardness of being in love as a pre-teen.
Their relationship is based on their shared status as outsiders dealing with similar emotional issues. Sam is an orphan, and Suzy's mother (Frances McDormand) is having an affair with the local cop (Bruce Willis). They lash out, in hopes of someone noticing or caring, or perhaps because they simply don't know how to deal with their feelings. No one ever truly attempted to listen to or understand them until they met each other. This connection may not be love, but they are certain that it is and that's what counts.
The film is squarely centered on Sam and Suzy, but they are surrounded by an extraordinary cast. Edward Norton is the scoutmaster, Bill Murray is Suzy's father, Tilda Swinton works for civil services and Jason Schwartzman pops up as another scout leader.
All the adult actors are wonderful performing within Anderson's very particular style. Willis, who plays a sad, lonely man, is a standout. As of late, Willis hasn't been acting so much as doing lazy variations on the familiar "Bruce Willis" persona, so it is nice to see him challenging himself again. A couple scenes with Gilman recall the quiet tenderness of his work in "The Sixth Sense."
Anderson is a filmmaker who could be considered an auteur. The auteur theory, developed by French critics in the 1950s, regards the director as the true author of a film. It is a highly debated theory as it ignores the contributions of everyone else involved in the filmmaking process, but it also changed how audiences perceive films.
We often attribute a film to its director. Most film directors really don't leave a distinct stamp to their work, so the theory doesn't hold water for every filmmaker. Directors such as Woody Allen or Tim Burton have a style so recognizably their own that you instantly know you're watching one of their works.
Anderson, who also co-writes his films, has such a unique visual style and tone that it is safe to say that no one else makes films like him. Anderson's films are a genre unto themselves. They are categorized as comedies, but their tone is so dry and deadpan, that it is difficult to discern the comic from the serious.
Visually, Anderson is fond of slow-mo sequences set to pop tunes, long tracking shots, sweeping pans, shooting things from above, medium shots of his actors and first-person perspectives of moving vehicles. His films are realistic, but with absurdist flourishes.
Anderson's characters are often eccentric and, yet, in spite of their idiosyncrasies, are recognizable as they grapple with emotions and situations that are relatable and real. No matter how offbeat Anderson's films become, there is always an emotional honesty.
Too often comedies mock their characters, but Anderson doesn't ridicule his misfit creations. His affection toward them reveals that he sees himself as one, too. In all his films, Anderson's characters are struggling to be understood and accepted as they are.
"Moonrise Kingdom," perhaps more so than any of Anderson's previous films, flaunts its peculiar tone proudly. This is the kind of film where a character gets struck by lightning with no ill effects, but also features the accidental killing of a dog. The film also features an on-screen narrator — in the style of a historical or nature documentary — wryly played by Bob Balaban. It is a delicate balance of realism with the utterly ridiculous.
It is an uplifting and heartwarming story, although it certainly doesn't get there through the traditional route of feel-good films. As holds true for all of Anderson's films, this is not going to be for everyone. Some films are meant to have a broad appeal and others a very specific, limited audience. "Moonrise Kingdom" rewards the audience members willing to take the risk on something different.