There are some instances where a filmmaker stumbles on the road. In 2007, The Darjeeling Limited felt like a misfire for the successful indie darling Wes Anderson. A film about three brothers reuniting after the death of their father was well reviewed and featured some good performances. Yet it also raised questions about Anderson’s ability to tackle more adult content with his trademark tweed aesthetic. He rebounded with the highly successful Fantastic Mr. Fox in 2010, but as a stop-motion animated film, it opened questions about his return to live action. Ironically, a story of children running away from home was exactly the story Anderson needed to tell to change the narrative.
Told with Bob Balaban‘s omniscient narration and a linear narrative, Moonrise Kingdom tells a comedic story of romance, love, and finding our purpose. Twelve-year-olds Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) and Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) run away from their summer homes in 1965. Sam’s scout camp quickly begins looking for the runaways, led by Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton). With local police chief Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) and Suzy’s parents (Frances McDormand and Bill Murray), the hodgepodge team chases the couple across a New England island.
A story of children seeking connection does not appear too adult on the surface. Yet the inciting incident begins to peel back layers on the adults who watch over the island. At the heart of Moonrise Kingdom is a question about the seen versus unseen. Do we write off people because of the labels attached to them (disturbed, orphan, sad, etc.). For Suzy and Sam, their paradise only comes into focus when they find someone who genuinely accepts them for their oddity. Outsiders can rarely make those connections, and when you find that person, you hold onto them for dear life. Anderson uses the opportunity to joke about the oddity of being in a relationship, and the lengths we go to ensure they continue. Yet beyond that, he strikes at a deeper question of belonging.
Anderson uses the personas of two actors in particular to tremendous effect. Willis’ career will always be defined by Die Hard, The Last Boy Scout, and action thrillers he popularized. Anderson peels back the layers on Willis’ career, setting him up as a dopy, seemingly bumbling man. Yet when called to step up, he does so without question. It is not an action setpiece that defines his heroism, but instead a moment where he fights to protect a young boy who faces a dangerous future. Choosing to become the legal guardian for a boy that the world does not want is perhaps the most heroic thing a person can do. It is only after he shows that side of himself that he literally saves Sam and Suzy.
In the same vein, Norton’s career had become plagued by rumors of his stubborn personality. While Marvel had come calling in The Incredible Hulk, when it came time for The Avengers, they found a new Bruce Banner. In a couple years, his character in Birdman would reflect these rumors. That character frames an egotistical, self-loathing actor as something of a genius. While Norton had certainly found critical success over the years, he was no longer seen as the next Brando.
Anderson recognized the seemingly hard edges of Norton, casting him in the role of the most empathetic man on screen. Another character that could be written off as mere idiocy, Norton quickly establishes himself as a natural collaborator for Anderson. While one might have imagined a Wilson brother in the role, Norton rattles off Wes’ dialogue better than most of Anderson’s immensely talented troupe. Norton also brings a vulnerability and self-doubt that shines through the screen. It’s possible that Norton himself wondered what his next steps would be from here, and what the future held. The answer would seemingly be a new collaboration with one of the great filmmakers of his generation.
Throughout the film, Suzy looks at her surroundings through the binoculars. This not-so-subtle choice from Anderson bears immense fruit, allowing the audience to look hard at those on-screen and around them. While living on a remote island in the Atlantic feels like an idyllic existence, beneath the surface the adults of the island struggle for connection. Knowingly, Anderson frames the very adult struggle of finding your person through the lens of two children who do not care that the world would keep them apart. With a period setting that embraces Anderson’s aesthetic sensibilities, he crafts a Hal Ashby homage so brilliant, that its sweetness will give you cavities to this day.
Alan’s Rating: 9/10
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