It’s 1965 and Sam (Jared Gilman) is the least popular boy at the Khaki Scouts’ Camp Ivanhoe on New Penzance Island. But when Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton) realizes he’s missing, he mobilizes the other boys in the troop to go looking for Sam.
Sam doesn’t want to be found. He has left to be with Suzy (Kara Hayward), a moody-seeming girl who lives at Summer’s End, a spot on the other end of the island. Both kids have difficult home lives — Suzy has anger issues, Sam is an orphan. But after a chance meeting at a play a year earlier, they became pen pals and have devised a plan to run away together. Between Sam’s scout skills and Suzy’s record player (with French pop album, but of course) and suitcase full of stolen fantasy library books, the pair is well equipped to spend a week or more together in the island’s forest.
Of course, just because that’s what they want doesn’t mean that’s what the adults in their lives will let them do. In addition to the Scout Master and all of Troop 55 (who treat the search more like a re-enactment of The Fugitive than a search for a buddy), the island’s police officer, Capt. Sharp (Bruce Willis) is also on the look out for Sam. When Suzy’s parents discover her absence, her mom, Laura (Frances McDormand), and dad, Walt (Bill Murray), join the hunt.
There is a scene, maybe 60 percent of the way through the movie, that more or less sums up the whole endeavor: Sam and Suzy, in their underwear while their recently washed clothes dry, dance awkwardly (as Wes Anderson characters often do) on the beach to something vaguely “Zou Bisou Bisou”-ish. It is funny, a little cringe-y, somewhat mannered and exceptionally sweet all at the same time. Wes Anderson’s movies are always a bit of a fairy tale — you have to buy in to the magic of it to see the characters as real people with genuine emotions. (And when you do, even the stop-motion animals of Fantastic Mr. Fox will seem like multidimensional characters, flawed but compelling.) You have to buy into the idea that two 12-year-olds could construct for themselves this scenario, one where they are on a beach with a record player and only a little self-conscious about being in their skivvies in front of each other. As with so many Wes Anderson characters, Suzy and Sam can seem almost too charactery to be believed, at least on paper. But in the context of the movie, they make sense. They are child adventurers — in between adult and kid, a step outside the normal world of their peers — similar to the characters in Suzy’s books. (The covers, which made me think of A Wrinkle in Time, have gotten a lot of press. They are little works of art in themselves and leave you wishing you could steal them from a library yourself.)
Wes Anderson creates a perfect self-contained world for each of his movies, with settings, wardrobe and even speech patterns that are stylized but still feel completely natural for the movie. I don’t know if anything like this world ever existed. (And being in 1965 doesn’t make it any more rooted in reality than any other Wes Anderson movie. Anyone of them could take place in the ’60s or now or 10 years in the future.) But Moonrise Kingdom really sells its version of reality. It is real enough to give the movie heart.
The leads — Gilman and Hayward — do a good job of making their oddball characters quirky without letting the quirks become the only thing we see about the characters. While this may be a little less true of the other characters — particularly small roles by Jason Schwartzman and Tilda Swinton, whose character is called (and refers to herself as) Social Services for most of her scenes — none of the performances strikes a false note. There could be more Murray perhaps, more Harvey Keitel (who shows up near the end), but overall the movie does a good job of holding back the adult stars to give the kids a chance to shine.
I found myself thinking about Fantastic Mr. Fox while watching this movie — possibly because of the woodland setting and the Khaki Scout badges that looked exactly like the badger from that movie. Perhaps more than any movie, except the fantastical Fox, since Rushmore, Moonrise Kingdom captures that Rushmore whimsy as well as the charm and heart. This movie easily joins the list of Anderson’s best films. A
Rated PG-13 for sexual content and smoking. Directed by Wes Anderson, who cowrote the movie with Roman Coppola, Moonrise Kingdom is an hour and 34 minutes long and is distributed by Focus Features.