Review By: Gordon K. Smith
Coastal Rhode Island, 1965: Sam, a 12-year-old boy from a troubled foster home, hatches a scheme to run away from “Khaki Scout” Camp Ivanhoe, get married to Suzy, his new-found dream girl, also 12, and live on their own private island, on their private beach. Parents, authorities and other assorted meddlers with assorted agendas launch a mad search to find them before a massive storm strikes.
That is the setup of MOONRISE KINGDOM, director co-writer Wes Anderson’s seventh and most endearing feature, a unique take on romantic comedy that is a true original. It’s not a sequel or a remake, it’s not based on a comic book, video game, or TV show, out to wring laughs from cheap gross-outs, or in 3-D. Its closest cousin may be Anderson’s 1998 gem, RUSHMORE, with which it shares Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman and a common theme – the contrast between young and middle-aged infatuation, and how there’s
sometimes not that much difference.
The younger lovers, Sam and Suzy, are played by two newcomers making their film debuts, Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward, who give beautifully genuine performances without the affectation that more bankable child stars would have added. Even when they give in to some early hormonal urges, it’s startling, but not exploitative – it feels organic. Murray (at his deadpan best) is not the frustrated would-be lover this time, as Suzy’s father, but frustrated nonetheless – wife Frances McDormand’s been carrying on secretly with Police Captain Bruce Willis, and they barely notice their daughter’s missing at first. It’s clear that the older
lovers are not without envy for the younger ones.
To call this a quirky comedy would be accurate on the surface, but missing what’s beneath – a real feel for what first love at 12, and being 12 itself, feels like, sounds like, looks like, in a pre-digital age where a kid’s available media was books and a record player. Anderson, who co-wrote MOONRISE KINGDOM with Roman Coppola (his collaborator on THE DARJEELING LIMITED) shoots much of the film in a deliberately hyper-realistic, dreamlike fashion, to emulate the illustrations of the young readers’ adventure books that Suzy is constantly reading. One deft bit of cinematic sleight of hand starts with a closeup of
Sam and pulls way out to show him actually inside one of the illos. This isn’t Anderson’s exact childhood – he was born in 1969 – but clearly he loves the simplicity of the setting (as someone who spent some time in scout camps in the late ’60s, I definitely can relate).
Anderson’s choice of music is also very eclectic here, too, and clearly part of his own childhood’s soundtrack. Prominent is Benjamin Britten’s compositions and his “Noah” opera (appropriately being staged during the storm). He also drops in several Hank Williams tunes originally released in the 1950s, but they were still getting plenty of airplay in the 60s. And his supporting cast is perfection – Edward Norton as an addled scoutmaster (but not a Boy Scoutmaster – you can be assured they wouldn’t have approved this script), a grey-haired Harvey Keitel as his martinet superior, Schwartzman as the cousin who finally “marries” them, and Tilda Swinton as an evil social worker (looking in some shots more like Katherine Hepburn than Cate Blanchett did in THE AVIATOR).
MOONRISE KINGDOM (you only find out in the final minutes the meaning of the title) is a comedy of careful vision and tone, that stays in your head long after the credits roll (and even those look like nothing else in any recent American movie I’ve seen).