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Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, 2012)

July 6, 2012

Moonrise Kingdom’s opening sequence could be viewed as a definitive showcase of Wes Anderson’s filmmaking characteristics, being that it contains his recognisable panning shots, a seemingly dysfunctional family, arguably precocious children, bold colour palettes, and meticulously arranged interiors. He is a director who has made a more noticeable progression with each film than many seem to recognise or give him credit for, and while his new effort’s start may suggest a caricature of his directing persona, or the man simply going through the motions as it were, Moonrise Kingdom marks an undeniable venture into new territory alongside its expansion of previously explored themes; it may also be Anderson’s best film to date.

Aesthetically matching its 1965 setting, Anderson’s first (definite) period piece is shot in 16mm with a thick grain that both dims some of his bright colours and lends a worn, aged quality to the various model-like buildings, carefully framed as they are usually prone to be in the man’s work. A noticeable shift from his prior works, however, is a relative avoidance of indoor tableaus and a greater presence in the outdoors, which proves surprisingly complimentary rather than oppositional to his marvellous storybook-like designs that still remain. The majority of the proceedings take place around a New England island, with a look free of the obviously crafted feeling films like The Darjeeling Limited still possessed even in their scenes of natural settings. Moonrise Kingdom’s woodland, river and coastal environments, often shot via handheld cameras that follow its pre-teen protagonists, have a noticeable visceral and almost primal quality. One night-set scene, in which Bob Balaban’s recurring narrator figure gives the rundown on the weather prior to a hurricane’s foreshadowed arrival in the final act, is even lit with colours of an almost elemental appearance.

In regards to sheer visual atmosphere alone this is a meticulously beautiful film, but, as with Anderson’s most successful efforts, the immaculate surface spectacle does not overshadow its thematic reaches and emotional impact in its character exploration. There is an extraordinary tenderness to Moonrise Kingdom, which has an unabashedly romantic feel in line with the passionate blooming friendship and then courtship of its pre-teen protagonists. The film never ignores the absurdity of their plan to try to run away together on a secluded island, but it also refrains from condemning either them or the assorted adults looking to separate the pair. The kids are beset by a desperate longing for connection with others, especially due to family circumstances where detachment is proving festering. Suzy is the rebellious, “problem child” eldest of three siblings, living with her lawyer parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand), a couple becoming increasingly distant; their lone clear goal in their marriage anymore seems to be trying to ensure their offspring don’t turn out like them. Sam, meanwhile, is an orphan who has been placed in various foster homes. Fleeing from the camp run by Edward Norton’s scout leader, Sam’s current foster parents disown the boy nonchalantly because they find him too difficult to oversee. Regardless of whether or not his pure kinship with Suzy is any deep kind of love, they are a uniting force for each other, and theirs is a relationship that serves to also re-shape the lives of their pursuers and would-be separators.

The innocence and determination projected by Sam and Suzy is portrayed as an admirable quality, creating sympathetic admirers in the likes of Bruce Willis’ sheriff, and even altering the perceptions of other children: Sam’s fellow boy scouts avidly assist in the manhunt, to alarming degrees reminiscent of Lord of the Flies, but change their stances dramatically upon reassessment. Norton’s scout leader also seems to represent a kind of innocence or at least the strive to maintain it, though his is a suggested naivety that, being an adult, finds him as a source of mockery, but he too is shaped by the escapades and provokes others to re-evaluate his worth. Hardened bitterness and cynicism, traits that define so many of Anderson’s previous protagonists, are the barriers that get broken down in the film, though always in a warm and never irritating fashion. The concept of breaking down is particularly important to the film, as the various forms of chaos that ensue following the lovers’ departure into the wilderness both aid the sense of drama – in adding danger and genuine tension to events – and serve to fuel the re-enlivenment of the adult characters stuck in buttoned-down familial and authoritative roles.

Not to make the emotional distance in some of Anderson’s previous films sound like an inherent detriment, but Moonrise Kingdom is perhaps the director’s most richly human work. Maybe this is because of a focus on children rather than simply childish people, but even the regular adult presences, bar perhaps Tilda Swinton’s still fun Social Services representative, are well sketched characters. There’s one devastating scene in particular with Suzy’s parents, lying in separate beds, with a suggestion of how love can suffer through the reshaping that comes with new responsibilities further down the line. Despite the melancholic undercurrent with these ideas, Moonrise Kingdom ends on an optimistic note of new possibilities. Both the hurricane and the absurdities of the manhunt bring about casualties and destruction, but the climax promotes a view that some good can come from the bad, and that a new, more positive future may arise after all.

As always with Anderson films, the soundtrack – here a mix of period-appropriate songs and an Alexandre Desplat score – is exquisite, while his deadpan comedy style reaches an arguable career high; despite the heavy emotion, this is still a hilarious film. Regarding the adult stars, Bill Murray is as reliable an Anderson staple as ever, while all the newcomers to his filmography fit in nicely and provide excellent work, especially Willis and Norton. Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward play the two leads and both are great, particularly Hayward who expresses so much through even the slightest of intonations. Their scenes together avoid outright gushy cutesiness, with the tender alternately complimented and undercut by the awkward, such as in one beautifully realised beach sequence involving swift dashes from uninhibited dancing to first kisses to a physical exploration of sexuality that neither quite comprehends yet: twelve year old Suzy tells Sam, “I think they’ll get bigger.” They are two children willing to grow up and commit to adult notions early, even if they don’t necessarily understand the gravity of the words they’re saying, as Jason Schwartzman’s briefly featured character suggests. The innocence is achingly sincere.

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