Adolescent love among eccentrics
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, June 1, 2012
“Moonrise Kingdom” opens with no music -- just the sound of raindrops falling on the roof of a preternaturally cozy house, which the camera gently leads the audience through as the family members inside go about their rainy-day business.
Bathed in apple reds, egg-yolk yellows and an air of studied eccentricity, the house is immediately recognizable as yet another habitat created by Wes Anderson, a film director whose obsession with material culture, nostalgia and nursery comforts borders on the fetishistic.
Of course, for viewers who happen to share Anderson’s taste for boldly framed, bespoke productions -- in which everything looks (and most probably is) lovingly handmade and artisanal, “Moonrise Kingdom” will simply offer yet another chance to live, at least for a little while, in the kind of universe only Anderson can create. (You can almost smell the damp canvas and wood polish in that opening sequence.) Those who long ago wrote off the writer-director as insufferably mannered and arcane -- the usual term of art is “twee” -- well, they’re welcome to stay out in the rain.
That opening-scene house has a name, by the way: Summer’s End, which turns out to aptly capture a vaguely autumnal tale of young love that takes place in early September 1965 -- a time of Ford Falcons and mothers who smoked.
The 12-year-old girl who lives in the house, Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward), wears miniskirts with her scuffed saddle shoes, and daring blue eyeshadow that wouldn’t be out of place on Carnaby Street. (Bearing a faint resemblance to Emma Watson, Hayward possesses a similarly compelling face for the screen, especially when she fixes the camera with a dark, adamantine stare.) In the past year, Suzy has struck up a pen-pal friendship with Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman), a bespectacled, raccoon-tail-capped kid who as “Moonrise Kingdom” begins has just run away from Khaki Scout camp.
As explained by a nameless narrator played by Bob Balaban (looking every inch the Christmas elf in a Technicolor-red winter coat and jaunty green cap), “Moonrise Kingdom” will chronicle the adventures of Sam and Suzy, each of whom is woefully misunderstood by the adults in his or her life. In Suzy’s case, those grown-ups are a couple of preoccupied lawyers (Frances McDormand and Bill Murray), one of whom is a little more preoccupied than the other.
Which brings us to the supporting players in “Moonrise Kingdom”: Bruce Willis portrays the police chief (and apparently sole police officer) on the small New England island where the story takes place; if you think his mild-mannered Capt. Sharp represents a departure from his “Die Hard” days, just wait until the third act.
Edward Norton plays Khaki Scout master Ward, who swiftly organizes a squad of kerchiefed boys to use their “wilderness and orienteering skills” to track down their peer (he’s not exactly a friend, because he’s the most unpopular kid in the group).
And Tilda Swinton dons a perfectly swirled and lacquered red wig to play an imperious bureaucrat who’s known in the film simply as “Social Services.”
As he’s done in all of his films -- from “Bottle Rocket” and “Rushmore” through “The Darjeeling Limited” and animated “Fantastic Mr. Fox” -- Anderson confects a distinctive mix of arch humor and solemnity in “Moonrise Kingdom,” in which Sam and Suzy confront death, abandonment and burgeoning sexuality in very real terms, but in which a character can also be struck by lightning without suffering anything worse than a pair of sooty glasses.
Leaning heavily on a leitmotif of Noah’s Ark -- and a lovely performance of the Benjamin Britten opera “Noye’s Fludde” -- Anderson weaves an alternately soothing and unsettling mythology of young love, never allowing the audience for one moment to dismiss or condescend to the film’s supremely solemn and earnest adolescent protagonists.
Still, if Anderson deserves credit for giving Sam and Suzy their dignity, his controlled, airless approach to the story has also sapped it of the headlong emotionalism that such reckless passions entail. As in all of his films, Anderson’s characters speak in affectless, matter-of-fact sentences, a style that was fresh and altogether suitable for the wise-beyond-his-years Max Fischer in “Rushmore,” but here creates a chilly intellectual distance.
With its love of bygone eras and Etsy-esque aesthetic of hand-sewn costumes and felt scout badges, “Moonrise Kingdom” begins to take on the meticulously crafted trappings a live-action, human version of “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” especially during a particularly antic climax where busy-ness and unhinged action finally swamp deeper meaning.
Everything has been so carefully curated and rigidly controlled in “Moonrise Kingdom” that the film begins to feel as precious and meticulously composed as one of the books that Suzy brings on her journey (along with a pair of left-handed scissors and a kitten).
Still, there’s no denying the extravagant pleasures “Moonrise Kingdom” affords as an erudite wish-fulfillment fantasy of empowerment and autonomy. Anderson’s style may not be to everyone’s taste, but he’s that rare -- maybe even unique -- filmmaker who seems interested in exploring film, not just as a vehicle for narrative, but as a material object in and of itself.
“Moonrise Kingdom” is already shaping up to be this summer’s art house sleeper hit, and no wonder: It traffics in the very kind of escapist spectacle -- in this case of a thoughtfully composed world brimming with whimsy, enchantment and visual brio -- that the season was made for.
Contains sexual content and smoking.