The precise flavor of our youth is always vividly remembered, though impossible to duplicate in successive years. We ache to reach back to an easier time and capture its delicacy, its colorful simplicity, when things seemed to be at their most imaginative, most clearest, most luminescent. There is an incessant want is to escape beyond this melodic nostalgia and arrive at a pleasant past we can make our own world again, to live on and through perpetually, even if it only exists cognitively.
Director Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom clings firmly to its child spirit wrapped in its heartily spun tale of swelling, young innocence, clashing harmoniously against the great strains of adulthood and those awash in it, with gentle dissection and warmth, all of it mediated by an aggressively specific storytelling style.
The premise takes place in 1965 and revolves around a missing twelve-year-old boy, Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman), who has fled from his Khaki Scout summer camp on a New England island. Upon discovering his disappearance, the group’s Scout Master, Randy Ward (Edward Norton) initiates a wide search. Meanwhile, a young girl, Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) goes missing from her New England home. We soon learn Suzy and Sam are an enamored twosome who has decided to run away together, much to the dismay of Suzy’s mother Laura Bishop (Frances McDormand), her father Walt Bishop (Bill Murray) and Captain Sharp played by Bruce Willis.
Actors Gilman, Norton, and Swinton are Moonrise Kingdom’s golden features. Gilman looks exactly as if he were a child from 1965, plucked right from the past. He performs with a steady, generally deadpan mixture of sweetness, confused confidence and a tugging vulnerability. He carries his character’s weight of the movie smartly and with the full stride of a seasoned actor.
Norton works very little to make Scout Master Randy funny. His performance is organic and his strained, and sometimes bumbling character seems disturbingly familiar; Ward is either someone we already know in life and or someone we hope to never become or both. He is also simultaneously pathetic and comforting, a math teacher who, even in his 40s, works exhaustingly to prove himself worthy to others and to himself, while suppressing all weighted regrets and frustrations. It shows in his face and expressions, efficiently delivered by Norton.
Tilda Swinton as Social Services, the woman assigned to place Sam in an orphanage, though a tiny role, is one of the film’s richest. She plays the part sternly and with a demanding tone, always reciting her dialogue as though she were speaking to Congress. In doing so, Swinton plays into the overly composed character’s absurdity and her comical incongruity to the restraint and easygoingness displayed by the majority of the other characters.
Though she arrives late in the story, she captivates the moment she does and maintains it until her exit. Swinton clearly and intelligently understands the contribution of her role to the greater whole, her piece within Anderson’s peculiar puzzle.
Moonrise Kingdom is a smoothly calculated nostalgia trip with a resounding respect for the art of filmmaking. Having never seen a Wes Anderson movie beforehand, I was only marginally alert to his atypical, but highly distinct directing approach. Anderson knows his own rhythms and positions them with careful melody. Absolutely no image is wasted and every last one has the balance and composition of an effortless storyteller. He’s a director who trusts his audience to understand what they do about his characters, and be altogether fascinated by what they don’t.
Of course it’s not the plot involving these characters that matters necessarily, but it’s the special way in which it is told. Moonrise Kingdom’s biggest triumph is its ability to take a relatively basic story and blossom it into a potent, complicated, affectionate journey, occupied by lovesick children and the lovesick adults trying to keep them apart. The film lacks dull moments even when occasionally getting too preoccupied with its own web of silliness; its cutesy factor wears a little thin by the last half hour as well.
But, Moonrise Kingdom also confidently sustains a frank, comedic tone throughout that nearly absorbs its viewers to the point of believing its amusing, convincing interpretation of life as close to fact, while being drastically far from authentic. It’s much like our childhood memories; the remembrance is invariably better than the reality. History never tells the whole truth. The movie constructs a diamond version of a life we never lived and still wish we had. Only this is part of Moonrise Kingdom’s charisma and the most alluring part of its success.