Review: Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

If Wes Anderson is a filmmaker characterized by affectation, it is a kind of affectation without the arrogance, snobbery, or social posturing usually associated. The explicit artificiality of Anderson’s films is less about impressing us, and more about delighting Anderson, but his films are not self-absorbed: they are preoccupied with the world he has created. He is like a kid meticulously setting up a Lego town, providing the backstory for each little plastic man, or, perhaps more fittingly, like a child carefully constructing a paper diorama for a book report.

That’s not to say we can’t admire his films though. I do. They always grown on me, I think because so much of their pleasure comes from their details. Once I’ve watched for the story the first time, I can go on and study the backgrounds of Anderson’s elaborate mise en scène.

There’s a scene in Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom (which is currently packing theatres in art house cinemas) where the children walk through the Boy Scout headquarters, Camp Lebanon. As Jason Schwartzman’s rascally canteen manger leads the children through the immense camp, we see boys exercising and training in the elaborately active background. It’s hard to say where our attention should be. The squared-on, diorama-like framing of so many of Anderson’s shots encourages the viewer to look around the full rectangle of the frame. While the background is being foregrounded, I don’t think the foreground is being pushed aside either. When the young runaways, Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward), need to share a moment before their “marriage,” they talk intimately to the left of the frame while a scrawny boy bounces and flips on a trampoline to their right. What should we be watching?

Sam and Suzy meet in a dressing room during a church play about Noah’s Ark. Both are loners who don’t really fit in. They write letters to each other and eventually plan to runaway together. Where to exactly is unclear, in that way children plan things but don’t really plan. Moonrise Kingdom is a young adult film (it reminded me of the books we read in Grade 7 and 8), but one told by an adult for largely an adult crowd. One might think of Moonrise Kingdom as Wes Anderson fully developing the young adult antecedents in his earlier work (e.g. the incident of Margot and Richie running away in The Royal Tenenbaums). The film nicely captures the discontent of puberty as well as the unfeigned eccentricity of many children, thanks mostly to the odd but candid performances by Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward.

The setting is the fictional New England island of New Penzance, which has no paved roads, has a rich Native American heritage, and was/is the site of a notable storm. The features and history of the island are related by a dry, elfish Bob Balaban, who periodically shows up.

What makes Moonrise Kingdom really succeed, though, is more than just the wonderful mise en scène or delightful idiosyncrasies. It’s the moments of heart. Although I remember The Life Aquatic as being somewhat mean-spirited, Wes Anderson’s films do tend to have moments of touching emotion and truth. I’m thinking of the disheveled Bill Murray while Cat Stevens plays in Rushmore, or Richie’s suicide attempt in The Royal Tenenbaums. What makes Moonrise Kingdom more than a fun diorama is, well, Moonrise Kingdom, the country Sam and Suzy form on a hidden beach together. Moonrise Kingdom articulates the youthful and earnest desire to leave everything and make your own world. For an adult, Moonrise Kingdom is a dream, a fancy, a wouldn’t it be nice, but one that’s too impractical, too unrealistic. Unless you’re Wes Anderson, I guess.

8 out of 10

Moonrise Kingdom (USA, 2012)

Directed by Wes Anderson; written by Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola; starring Jared Gilman, Kara Hayward, Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Francis McDormand, Bob Balaban, Tilda Swinton, Harvey Keitel, and Jason Schwartzman.