So Moonrise Kingdom finally decided to show up in Raleigh this weekend past. After a decade spent living in the mountains of Western North Carolina, I’ve become used to platform releases over the years; after all, a majority of the films that interest me are rolled out this way to build up word of mouth and generate buzz for awards season. But this wait was ridiculous! Do you hear me American Empirical Pictures?! RIDICULOUS! Wes Anderson’s latest opened up on May 27 on 4 screens, which is not an unusual way of handling things—those bastards in New York and Los Angeles always get first crack at films like this. The weeks preceding its initial release is where it got stupid, going from 4 screens to 16, to 96, to 178, and finally, to 395 screens this weekend when it showed up in most major markets in North Cackalack, and most important, Ruff’ Raleigh, home of Petey Pablo. What kind of world do we live in where a major music star like Petey is denied the right to view the latest effort from one of the strongest and fiercely individualistic auteurs working in the business today? For shame, Scott Rudin Productions. For shame *shakes head*. I had hoped to have this review up closer to the Wes Anderson week we had to celebrate Moonrise Kingdom’s release, but sometimes we don’t get what we want—much like the Christmas when I asked for Tommy Lasorda Baseball for the Sega Genesis but got Hardball instead.
But now the wait is over and I’m pleased to report that it was well worth the time I spent shaking my fists at the sky, cursing my current geographical location. With Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson once again creates a world that is unmistakably his, a film that any cineaste could identify as his by merely viewing one scene, in or out of context with the rest of the picture. This, of course, could be a good thing or make you not want to waste your time at all, depending on where your opinions on the director fall. If you find his output to be too precious or calculated, a hypercontrolled, diorama-like universe that is constantly threatening to collapse under the weight of ideals and aesthetics that have come to define him, you will hate this picture. If you love his elegant tracking shots, intricate production design, symmetrical compositions, and the way his films labor in his own, extremely personal space, you could have a new favorite film from the auteur, as Moonrise Kingdom not only embraces all of these characteristics but also ratchets them up to a level that blows past his prior, most meticulous creations, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and The Royal Tenenbaums.
Anderson’s latest is also his first period piece, even though his prior efforts have always carried with them an obsession with the sounds and look of decades past. The setting is the land of New Penzance, a fictional island off the coast of New England in the year of 1965. Through the use of a narrator (Bob Balaban) the audience is given a tour of this imaginary location, finding out that in 3 days’ time a rather large storm will pass, wrecking the coast and, in general, causing a mess of epic proportions. It is during this time that Sam (Jared Gilman), a disliked Khaki Scout spending his summer at Camp Ivanhoe, and Suzy (Kara Hayward), a young girl who is depressed and isolated from her schoolmates and family, run away together, using provisions and knowledge that Sam has appropriated from his troop, led by Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton, in a most earnest, hilarious performance). The young lovers met at a church pageant a year prior, Sam dressed to the nines in his scout uniform, Suzy costumed as a raven, locking eyes in the girl’s dressing room, their souls managing to make a deep connection before Sam is forced out, it being improper of him to hang out in the girl’s changing room. The two become pen-pals, overcoming the long distance between the two while Sam is back in his foster home before returning to camp the following summer. It is during this time they decide to run off together, causing panic in the adults charged with their safety. Suzy’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Bishop (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand), both lawyers by trade and long fallen out of love with one another, Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), a cop who is dedicated to his profession but in over his head nonetheless, possibly due to the fact that his affair with Suzy’s mom has entered its autumn stage, and the aforementioned Scout Master Ward lead the charge, but none are truly up to the task. With the storm fast approaching, this unusual quartet must find a way to locate the missing duo before the island battens its hatches in preparation for inclement weather of epic proportions.
The two young leads tear into their debut roles, both giving performances that are wonderfully gratifying in a noncloying fashion that typically dogs performances of this nature. As I was sitting in the darkened movie theater, it became impossible to not see Suzy and Sam as younger versions of Margo Tenenbaum and Max Fisher. He the overachieving outcast, at least when it comes to extracurricular activities that scouting provides him; she well set in her melancholy ways, even seen as an outcast from her own family (spurned on by the theft of his record player, her younger brother points out that she is a traitor to her family). In my favorite segment of the film, the duo share secrets, frolic and dance in the sand, and share their first kiss, bringing to the screen one of the more honest portraits of summertime romance and first loves in recent memory all the while sporting a grace that is typically reserved for the understated classics of European cinema. The big name actors melt into their roles, each of which seems perfectly tailored to not only play to their strengths but to play off their previous roles and, by extension, their personas as well. Willis and Norton haven’t been this good in years, and in particular, it’s good to see Willis burrow into a role that brings out the best in him as it seems easy for an audience to forget how great he can be when given the chance to shine. At first glance, Murray seems to only be playing a variation of the depressed midlifer roles that have become a specialty of his—at least when paired with Anderson-penned characters—but, in his performance here, I believe he pushes the boundaries of those prior roles, enthusiastically mining a darker, more desperate mental space that fundamentally acts as a summation of his best roles in this particular period of the actor’s career.
Technically speaking, every set-up in Moonrise Kingdom is brilliant. Robert D. Yeoman’s camerawork is elegant and graceful, with his equipment placed just so in every scene, the actors positioned in front of it in an exact way, maximizing impact of every frame and the well-timed sight gags that pepper the film’s runtime. Props and sets are meticulously designed to fit seamlessly into Anderson’s storybook world, operating with a logic and reality bent to conform to his endlessly brilliant imagination. The covers and titles of the children’s books that Suzy holds so dear serve as standouts, recalling the artwork of the Newberry Award winners of my youth. The lessons and techniques the director absorbed during the time he time he spent in the universe of stop animation shines through in his follow-up effort, so much so that several scenes feel like they could have been cut from the runtime of The Fantastic Mr. Fox, making this fan hope that the director will revisit that medium of expression sooner rather than later.
All of these qualities help to make Moonrise Kingdom an unforgettable experience, a film that captures—with a stunning accuracy that few films prior have been able to deliver—that thrilling flush of a first love (or crush if you’re a cynic) while still remembering the agony that accompanied pre-teen solitude. The feeling that you have no place in the world to call your own, and that no one—even (or especially) your family—will ever understand you. And then for some out there in the world, the film is astute enough to note, this is a feeling that will never go away.