There’s no mistaking Moonrise Kingdom for anything but a Wes Anderson film. Mannered, exquisitely designed and deadpan throughout, this is a film that is absolutely auteurist. There are some who will roll their eyes at this, as if having a strong style were a bad thing; they’ll be missing out on not only one of the best films of the year but one of the best - if not THE best - film of Anderson’s career.
Moonrise Kingdom feels like a culmination, like Anderson has been working towards this one movie. It combines elements of Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums and The Fantastic Mr. Fox into a whole that is fresh, exciting, sweet and, most of all, gentle. Moonrise Kingdom is a gentle film of wistful beauty, a memory mood piece with a surprising undercurrent of tough honesty. I think it’s the fact that he’s filtering so many of his quirks through child actors that makes Moonrise Kingdom feel like an uber-Wes Anderson film (in the best possible way).
The fact that the movie is a period piece, set in 1965, also goes a long way. This isn’t his alternative universe from Tenenbaums but rather a fondly-remembered past for which he wasn’t even present. Moonrise Kingdom presents an idea of what 1965 was like, and it turns out it was a world tailor made for Wes Anderson.
Suzy and Sam are kids right on the cusp of their sexual awakening. Both are strange and don’t quite fit in, and they fall for each other (at a school production of the 15th century mystery play Noyes’ Fludde, where the animals go two-by-two onto the Ark) and run away together. Sam runs away from the Khaki Scouts where, despite being an exemplary scout, he is seen as an outsider and Suzy runs away from a home where her parents’ marriage is dissolving. Using Sam’s scouting skills they attempt to live in the woods while everyone from their small New England island community looks for them.
Jared Gilman, in thick spectacles and with a marble-mouthed delivery, is glorious as Sam, while Kara Hayward, a heartbreaker in a Bonnie Parker beret, is the proto-Margot Tenenbaum. Together they’re sweetly conductive, zapping currents of straight-faced puppy love energy throughout the film. The movie wouldn’t work without these two, and they are heroes.
The rest of the cast surrounding them is spectacular. Edward Norton shrugs off his dour public persona to play a warm-hearted scoutmaster, while Bruce Willis sheds his badassdom to play the local sheriff who sees a kindred spirit in poor lonely Sam. Anderson’s hangdog muse, Bill Murray, delivers a performance of such nuanced sad depths that it’s breathtaking. His relationship with Frances McDormand, his wife who is cheating with the sheriff, could make for a whole movie on its own, but Anderson paints it whole in simple compassionate brushstrokes that leave neither party looking bad.
The adult cast is joined by a whole troop of Khaki Scouts, each played like a Jack Kirby Newsboy Legion character come to life, each a delight in himself. The richness of the characters and actors helps create a complete world, a sense of a whole and hermetic place we can almost touch.
Also creating that sense is the gorgeous Super 16 cinematography of longtime Anderson compatriot Robert Yeoman. The forest and seascapes of the mythical New England island are inviting and comforting, seemingly woven out of memory rather than film. There’s a honey-golden atmosphere and a thick texture to every frame. It’s simply amazing.
What moved me most about Moonrise Kingdom was the lack of cynicism in the film. These 12 year olds think they can just run away and be together, and the movie thinks they can too. There’s definitely sadness in the film, and Anderson is contrasting the burgeoning love between these two with the crumbling love between Murray and McDormand, but he’s not doing it to undercut Sam and Suzy. The most refreshing kind of positivity is the clear-eyed kind, the kind that sees sometimes things are bad but stays optimistic anyway.
There will be cries of hipsterism launched at the film, but that’ll just be from those entrenched in mass mall culture who feel threatened by things that feel handmade and real. There’s no irony in Moonrise Kingdom (although there is plenty of humor), and every emotion is deeply and truly felt. The movie never distances us from any of the characters and, maybe with the exception of Tilda Swinton’s Miss Gulch-like Social Services, it loves every single one of them.
I keep coming back to how gentle the film is, and I know that sounds like a not very effusive bit of praise. But it is, and the fact that the movie can be gentle and yet compelling is what makes it great. Moonrise Kingdom will make you feel good in a way that isn’t cheap or easy but so complex, so skillful, as to be the work of a master. It’s the most magical, wonderful film of the year.