DIRECTED BY WES ANDERSON
I did not even have to read anything about Moonrise Kingdom to immediately realize that this film, more than any other in Wes Anderson’s filmography, was the biggest love-letter to Truffaut he has ever given. The large, children-driven ensemble was something of a dead give-away but Anderson’s recent disclaimer that he was very much influenced by Truffaut’s cute, albeit minor given his body of work, film Small Change shows Anderson’s keen eye and intellectual curiosity that lends itself greatly to the film. Moonrise Kingdom itself is a good if minor film for Anderson but many of the pretentiousness and tone-deafness he had in his collaboration with writing partner Noah Baumbach is lost teaming up with Roman Coppola.
In Baumbach’s defense, however, some of the great things from the Fantastic Mr. Fox are on display here, in both the themes and in the technical work of the special effects that feel straight out of the world of Fantastic Mr. Fox. Anderson clearly grew a fondness of adapting works of children’s literature as adolescence and the connection to literature are found deeply in the characters, particularly Suzy (Kara Hayward), who aspires to be just like her book heroines with a defining super power. Anderson has obviously used literary figures as a template in his previous films, notably from the mind of JD Salinger, but explicitly marking a character’s aspirations to children’s literature shows an understanding for his subjects. Suzy and her soul mate, the orphan rogue Khaki Scout Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman), are neither the whimsical as many deride Anderson’s writing for doing to his characters to be nor the extremely cynical, malignantly precocious kids that have now become the new archetypes for children in film and television (especially television). Suzy, Sam, and the other Khaki Scouts are closer to the children of Truffaut’s films (most obviously Antoine Doinel) in that their growing out of adolescence into adulthood is filled with responsibility and they all yearning to have that responsibility as it is a pathway to freedom. They want to be adults but when it crosses into them being seen as disobeying the adults in the power position, it becomes a problem and such aspirations for freedom are suppressed. But yes, there are some situations in the film that does get a little close on the side of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, but there is a change. Sam and Suzy can both be interpreted as screwed up kids who really should have their minds examined but there is really nobody there for them. This is until the more maligned adult figures (okay, nearly all of them are maligned in some way) in maligned power positions grow sympathetic to them and their stories. Why should they not be together?
The Suzy and Sam romance scenes are delicately done in ways that invoke innocence but show an awkwardness that comes with both of them transitioning from childhood into adulthood. I actually felt a bit uncomfortable in those scenes because of the fine line in the delicacy of the scenes by Anderson and the intrusiveness as an audience member. Again, this is not a mark on Anderson but in fact major kudos, for doing something as touching, tender, and nice as those Richie and Margot scenes in The Royal Tenenbaums.
Already mentioning how the ensemble is mostly held together by child actors, I am sure people who are used to the Anderson mainstays of Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman (whose appearance is practically a cameo) may be a little disappointed. But they do well in their scenes, likewise to Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, and Frances McDormand all portraying people in power positions who in one way or another screwed up. Tilda Swinton plays both an entity and a stand-in for storybook villain bearing the name of Social Services and she does it well as she always does. But the film belongs to Gilman (whose thick-rimmed glasses and disposition make me think he ought to be a future Anderson mainstay) and Hayward (who at the age of 13 or 14 somehow manages to avoid being sexualized despite wearing very aspirational French movie star makeup of blue eye shadow and go-go boots). Really, the only actor getting the shaft in terms of development is Harvey Keitel.
Technically speaking, Moonrise Kingdom is a feast for the eyes even with the documentary pretense of Bob Balaban as both a part of the world on the island of New Penzance and as the film’s narrator. It is shot in super-16 but the fluidity of the tracking shots from the very moment of showing the compartments of the Bishop household to the music of “The Young Person’s Guide to Orchestra, Op. 34, Themes: A & F” show classic Anderson at work. But again, there is the French New Wave influence of some bits that are blink and you missed with in the jump cuts and the pretense of Balaban’s presence foretelling the third act at the very beginning of the film. Anderson wisely does not show his cards too explicitly about the influence, with maybe just Suzy’s liking to French pop records and her materialism being the only linkages to French culture.
At times there are ways Moonrise Kingdom is the easiest film in the Anderson oeuvre for the mainstream to digest and there are other times that the parts of the film are going to feel pretentious and cater to only those who can see Anderson playing off Truffaut and the French New Wave. The delicacy and unabashed earnestness does not yield whimsy but actually a very unique, nice film about adolescence that feels more authentic than any other Wes Anderson film. Maybe it is the Coppola influence at work. Or, I just really hate Noah Baumbach.