I am incapable of neutral feelings when it comes to Wes Anderson.
Since the Recorder is a magazine devoted to opinions, that’s not going to get me in any trouble, but I wanted to throw it out there anyway. I lack objectivity in this piece because it’s about my thoughts on the new Wes Anderson film, Moonrise Kingdom. To make a long story short, I loved it to death, but where’s the fun in making a long story short?
I first encountered his films when I saw The Royal Tenenbaums with my aunt and uncle sometime during Christmas break my freshman year of high school. Tenenbaums is a big, grand movie, messy and alive with laughter, compassion, and deeply felt sadness. I was delighted and intrigued. My aunt and uncle hated it as much as I liked it. The next time I went to Hollywood Video (remember that place?) I checked out another film, Rushmore, by the same director-writer.
Over the course of the three-day rental, I watched Rushmore four times. First by myself in the basement on Friday night, again the next day with my 11-year-old sister who mostly found it baffling, and twice more on Sunday with and without the commentary from Anderson, his co-writer Owen Wilson, and the star Jason Schwartzman. By the time my dad drove the DVD back to the store on Sunday night I was hooked. Something in that little 90-minute tale about a lonely, weird high school boy’s unexpected connection with two equally lonely souls lit me on fire. Too wry and idiosyncratic to be mainstream, but funny in such unexpected ways and expressionistic that spoke to me in ways that art, literature, and religion never had. Rushmore was a tiny, beautiful world unto itself. It was made whole by Anderson’s devotion to detail and made worthwhile by its acknowledgement that life could be hard and dispiriting, but you should certainly come out the wiser.
I scoured the internet for something, anything I could find about Rushmore, Tenenbaums, Anderson, or any other person or thing related to those films. This continued unabated for at least a year and a half, and had the inadvertent effect of throwing me headlong into the world of cinema. Since I was a devotee of Anderson’s work I tracked down the films that inspired him. I convinced my parents to let me rent The Graduate and Jules et Jim. When I saw those I turned around and found more movies related to them. I found that film was a vast, undiscovered country filled to the brim with the emotion and thoughtfulness that seemed in short order in my high school life. Cinema, and the cinema of Wes Anderson in particular, became a safe haven, where I found people who felt as broken and adrift as I sometimes did. Fast forward 10 years to today and, that still rings true. My obsession with cinema did not wane in the months or years after I first saw Rushmore. It grew exponentially into a full blown career path, and, well, here we are.
Which brings us back around to Moonrise Kingdom. Set in 1965 on a fictional island off the coast of New England called New Penzance, it tells the story of a young girl from the island (Kara Hayward, who is my vote for best in show) and an unpopular scout (Jared Gilman) who run away together. Their romantic late-summer escapade draws her parents (the perpetually excellent Bill Murray and Frances McDormand), his scout master (Edward Norton) and fellow troopers, and the local police chief (Bruce Willis, in the type of role he should take more often) into a chase across New Penzance and the isles beyond.
As with all of Anderson’s films, Moonrise Kingdom showcases an exquisite, finely-wrought, and almost entirely self-contained world. New Penzance is recognizable not as a real place, but an expressionistic approximation of a very specific place and time. The mid-60’s milieu is one that Anderson seems to strive for in all his films, so setting one in that period for the first time makes perfect sense. It lends the outmoded methods of communication and rapport an element of plausibility that they might otherwise lack. The New England location also seems to mesh nicely with Anderson’s established sensibilities. His characters are always striving upward, aiming to be the best or most notable in the opinion of their peers and betters. Such stories fit right into the Yankee consciousness of New England, permeating even the relatively wild and remote rivers and cliffs of New Penzance. Anderson pours his usual cast of characters into this setting, populating New Penzance with lost and confused souls who have trouble connecting with the rest of the world. All of this is to be expected from Anderson after seven features, and in many regards Moonrise Kingdom is fairly archetypical for a filmmaker this established.
It is the re-introduction of young people to the center of Anderson’s attention that makes the film take flight beyond these expectations. Children and teens have always been featured in his films, but for the first time since Rushmore they take the lead in Moonrise Kingdom. This shifted focus makes the film into one of the more dazzling and affecting I have seen in the past few years. This story, and these characters seem to be the type that generations of 12-year-olds who have spent their whole life buried in books and daydreams will idolize. In some ways, it’s almost surprising that Moonrise Kingdom isn’t based on a unpublished J.D. Salinger short story, since its so finely in tune with his feeling for late-adolescent thoughts and behavior. The pubescent couple that sets the plot into motion, Suzy and Sam, are protagonists straight out the world occupied by his Glass family and Holden Caulfield. She is a temperamental young woman, storming against the world and her parents for making life so difficult and strange. He is an orphan, an official outcast, who can find no camaraderie or care in his foster families or fellow scouts. They have corresponded in highly formal, No. 2 pencil-written letters for a year before making their escape into each other’s company.
What makes their adventure through the forests and beaches of New Penzance ring so true to me is that Anderson does not require us to invest in them as a romantic couple. Certainly that element is there, especially since Suzy and Sam are just on the cusp of the physical and emotional maturation that will make them adults. He treats her like a lady, she expects him to provide (in some sense), they kiss and mildly experience their bodies as sexual things. But this is not a romance like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or Before Sunset, where not investing in the leads as a strong romantic pairing could make the whole film fall apart. Instead of the flame of eternal love growing between two 12-year-olds, what Anderson creates between Suzy and Sam is the first shared spark of recognition and self-expression. Suzy and Sam have sought each other out and formed a connection because they both feel like outsiders, alienated and astray from familial or social ties. This is a very common trait for any Anderson character (or any 12-year-old), but these young people have not yet been scarred and jaded by the world’s troubles. Such problems may be in their future, as hinted at by a rapidly approaching hurricane, but they do not ruffle our protagonists in this film.
The focal point of Suzy and Sam’s adventure, and the key sequence of the whole film, is their idyllic time spent on an unnamed beach on a remote corner of the island. They are symbolically and physically cut off from the civilized world that they cannot connect to, and respond by making that little alcove into a world of their own fashioning. They cliff dive, dance to French pop music in their underwear, and make crude paintings and jewelry. It is here where they have something like a sexual experience, and share their well-hidden thoughts and feelings. In a perfectly pitched moment, Suzy says that she wishes she were an orphan like Sam, since it would make her romantic and intriguing like the characters in her young adult novels. Sam looks her straight in the face and replies, “I love you, but you have no idea what you are talking about.” A lesser filmmaker would linger on this disharmony, exaggerate the disagreement to a melodramatic pitch. Anderson wisely lets it sail by, understanding that these two share a bond that can weather such a slight rebuke. Their bond is based on the shared discovery that feeling sad, lonely, and confused is okay because it’s surprisingly universal, and we love each other through such pains anyway. The rest of their time on the beach is a reverie that clearly cannot last long, and the moment when it is broken up is actually one of the film’s biggest laughs. But that day and night in their private Moonrise Kingdom will undoubtedly shape Suzy and Sam for decades, and seems to be what Anderson most wants us to linger on.
Suzy and Sam’s social ills and distressing actions are redeemed on that beach by their shared connection, and such redemption is perpetually central to Anderson’s work. He seems to have an endless fondness for irascible dreamers and kooks who grope their way towards understanding and acceptance like the central pair in Moonrise Kingdom. I think that’s why Anderson’s films have proven so popular for much of my generation. He invites us into a fabulously detailed world that is at once as familiar and alien in its fastidious expressiveness. Once inside this world, he tells stories about lonely people and missed chances that are universally empathetic for a generation raised on the merits of online navel-gazing. The resolution to these stories has consistently been the protagonist learning to look beyond himself and embracing the happiness of being with similarly spirited people. Look at Max Fischer staging a Vietnam epic in order to obliquely reunite a couple that he broke up, Royal Tenenbaum smiling at his formerly estranged son in the back of an ambulance as he dies, or Mr. Fox (in Fantastic Mr. Fox) dancing in a supermarket because he outsmarted the farmers that were out to destroy his family. All of them spend much of their respective films causing problems and feeling alienated, but wind up happy and at peace when they let others into their lives. In many ways, such narrative arcs are a blueprint for the audience to follow.
A friend described seeing this film as feeling like vindication for being a shy, quiet child who lived through her books. She is happily married now, and I am fairly certain she never had an adventure like the one in Moonrise Kingdom. But clearly seeing a pair of outcasts like Suzy and Sam begin to find their way towards the happiness she now shares with her husband every day felt like a wonderful vindication. My reaction to Moonrise Kingdom was much the same. I’m not even the nerdy, awkward freshman who found an outlet in watching Wes Anderson movies anymore. I’ve grown more comfortable with myself since then, more confident in my thoughts, and more trusting of my peers and loved ones. But when I see Sam kiss Suzy, finally make friends with his fellow scouts, and connect with the parental figures in his life, I can easily draw the emotional parallels to similar experiences from my life. My experiences aren’t as cinematic as Sam’s, but then, that’s why we go to the movies.