I love Wes Anderson movies. So I don’t really need a lot of convincing to see them. Therefore I only watched the Moonrise Kingdom trailer once and avoided any other coverage. And I’m really glad for it. I recommend going into this film with as little knowledge as possible of what will transpire. I guess that is probably sound advice for most films, but I single out Moonrise Kingdom as a good cold watch because I found the actual plot and adventure of Moonrise Kingdom to be surprising and I was taken to places I didn’t expect to go.
Taking my own advice into consideration, I’ll review the film at first without any spoilers. But then I’ll warn you and dive into spoiler territory for those who have already seen the film!
There have been singular moments in previous Wes Anderson films which have possibly evoked more emotion in me, but overall Moonrise Kingdom is the most emotionally satisfying among his works to date. Coming of age has never been quite this achingly sweet, quirky, and filled with fantasy.
If you have strong opinions about Wes Anderson’s voice as a filmmaker, Moonrise Kingdom will do nothing to change them. Therefore, if you already love him: See Moonrise Kingdom at your first convenience. If you can’t stand his aesthetic, avoid it at all costs.
Where I do feel that Anderson’s storytelling has improved with this adventuresome script, his production design and precise camera work are turned up to 11 in Moonrise Kingdom. In the first act of the film, I will admit that his precise camera movements and elaborately whimsical set design had me worried that Moonrise would be an exercise in style over substance. But by act two I had forgotten those concerns and was fully invested (nay, in love) with the characters filling up this wonderful world. And that isn’t to say that his distinct style is a bad thing. I love it, but it really only works when the camera and sets draw you into the story, and this time out it took me a little while to wish I lived in this world instead of the real one.
12 year old Sam (Jared Gilman) escapes from Khaki Scout camp and kicks off a massive manhunt on an isolated island off the coast of New England in a 1960s era Summer. We soon come to discover many other surprising details. For one thing, Sam is an orphan, and his foster parents have declined to take him back home after this latest mishap. We also learn that Sam’s escape from camp is part of an orchestrated plan to unite with his pen pal and the love of his life, Suzy (Kara Hayward.) As the film progresses, we will follow the action from two worlds. First we have the adult world, with Suzy’s parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand), Sam’s scout master (Edward Norton), and the island police chief (Bruce Willis), bumbling and generally exhibiting the broken, childlike adulthood that most Wes Anderson adults display. We also dwell in the kids’ world. Kids in an Anderson film still represent the hope and blank slates that we all seem to have lost by the time we grow up. Yes, there are bullies and real hurt in the world of these kids. But there are also profound moments of grace, forgiveness, and sincerity.
Moonrise Kingdom offers an enormous amount of spiritual food for thought amidst all the quirkiness.
First of all, the relationship between Sam and Suzy is a more mature and communicative love experience than many adults have ever had. While it is likely that Sam and Suzy’s inability to communicate with the adult world results from a mixture of mild autism and the aforementioned broken and bumbling adults, the connection they find in each other is beautiful. My own childhood was never this achingly whimsical, but I certainly felt the angst and drama that these two are experiencing. And Wes Anderson captures that feeling and brings me back to my own adolescence, as mundane as that truly was.
Sam and Suzy have worked at their intimacy via crayon-written letters over an entire year. They have already built up a trust with one another by the time we meet them. And now that that trust is secure, they are able to find unconditional love for one another. At one point in their adventure, Sam apologetically tells Suzy that he may wet the bed. When he asks if that is okay, her response is “of course it is.” I submit that most adults would never have the courage to lay themselves as bare as Sam is willing to. And that most adults could not respond to this simple confession with the grace that Suzy does. It is a perfect moment that I can’t wait to revisit.
Another shockingly wonderful moment in the film comes when Sam’s Khaki Scout troop is meeting in their tree house. Sam is the most unpopular of the scouts. And when the first encounter between the runaway Sam/Suzy and the Khaki Scouts occurs… things get out of hand fast. But after that encounter, when all seems hopeless for Sam’s custody and for the future of Sam and Suzy, the Khaki Scouts do an amazing thing. Led by one courageous kid, the bullying scouts awaken to Sam’s plight and the challenges of his life thus far. They realize their duty as loyal Khaki Scouts. The unthinkable happens, and bullies awaken to their folly and rally to aid the outcast among their ranks. I make it sound dramatic, but it was perhaps my favorite twist in this tale.
To me, this moment of redemption for our resident bullies gives an insight into Wes Anderson’s vision for the world. Although Anderson’s worldview offers a broken and roguish picture of adulthood, it seems to me that he tells stories that are saturated in hope, in lessons learned, and in the ability for each of us to triumph over our flawed natures. The Khaki Scouts coming to Sam and Suzy’s aid is a pure moment. And one that rings true within this particular tale, even if it doesn’t happen in reality as much as one might hope.
In the redemptive climax of Moonrise Kingdom, the world of the adults has finally crashed, unavoidably, with the world of the kids. Reality is nipping at Sam and Suzy’s heels and it seems their adventure will end badly. Social Services are after Sam to take him to an institution. At this point, with a raging storm sweeping over the small island, the bumbling adults have a chance to make things right, and they take it! Anderson writes a script that allows all of the adults’ flaws to coalesce as strengths in this one important moment. What happens? Well, Willis’ Island Policeman accepts Sam into his home, as his ward! “How does that sound, kid?” No review recap can capture the perfect moment that Anderson builds to for his climax. But by the end, my heart soared to know that Sam would find a home, and that Sam and Suzy’s love would have a chance to run its course.
Brokenness is woven together and given one opportunity to redeem. The opportunity is taken. Redemption is possible. And we are all better for it. Amen, Wes Anderson. Amen.