As the lights came up and the credits began to roll at the end of Moonrise Kingdom, I listened intently for the reactions of the crowd around me. It was one of those times when I just couldn’t be sure if the audience was on the side of the movie or not. After a few moments of nothing more than shuffles, sloshing-soda sounds and the crumpling up of pop corn bags, the woman behind me said to her friends, “Man, that movie was so weird,” with just enough laughter in her voice that I still felt uncertain – was it good weird or bad weird? What did this hodge-podge crowd of fellow “it’s too hot to be outside in the middle of the day, even on the 4th of July” movie goers make of this strange story about two-12-year-olds in love?
I may never know. To be honest, I’m not sure I know what I make of it, either. That’s why I was so interested. Wes Anderson has a way of doing this to audiences, I think. Or, perhaps I should speak for myself – Wes Anderson has a way of doing this to me. From start to finish, he creates movies that don’t play by the rules. Everything from dialogue to art direction, to the performances of the actors is somehow out of step with what audiences are used to – slower, almost sedated, subtle to the point of almost missing…it, whatever “it” is. Yet, the thing that not only saves his films, but arguably makes them great in spite of all the tactics that could put audiences off, is that whatever the rules he makes up are, the world he creates honors them. There is consistency. The audience can find its way into the story.
Sometimes, like in the case of The Royal Tenenbaums, this works for me. Others, like The Life Aquatic, I want to punch myself in the face just to alleviate boredom. I wish I could tell you the difference between the two, but I fear that the truth is the only difference may very well be about what I had for lunch or how my day at work went on the days I watched them. Who knows?
What I do know is that while I still feel a little confused by Moonrise Kingdom, I am most definitely on its side. The story begins with 12-year-old Sam, a Khaki Scout, and his “troubled child” girlfriend of the same age, Suzy, running away together, putting his Scout skills and her love of books to good use as they try to survive on their own. Played by Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward respectively, the two are made for each other – each clearly feeling alone even in a crowd, each with appropriately daunting childhood problems. From their escape on, the movie is as much fairy-tale as anything else, a feeling that is added to by the fact that it is set in 1965 and the island on which it takes place seems to only be occupied by the principle players in the story. Isn’t that how children see the world? Only those directly related to their own happiness or unhappiness exist. Storms are giant, earth-shattering events, and tree-houses should be high enough to make all the adults feel nervous and all the kids feel safe. Wes Anderson gets this, and he makes sure the audience does as well.
Gilman and Hayward are well-matched as actors, both authentic and darling, and their fellow 12-or-so-year-old actors who make up the Khakis Scout troupe Gilman escapes from are fantastic as menacing, yet somehow still fun supporting characters.
In pursuit of the wayward lovers (well, not lovers, but you know what I mean), are Scout Master Ward (Ed Norton), Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) Suzy’s parents (Francis McDormand and Bill Murry), and Social Services (Tilda Swinton, and, yes the character is only referred to as “social services”). Of this half of the cast, Willis and Norton are the clear stand-outs, each brining in a good deal of the laughs, as well as many of the tender moments. McDormand and Murry are excellent, but underused. Still, there is not a bad performance to be found. There are a couple folks with parts almost small enough to be called cameos that I will leave as surprises, if you’re not already well-versed with the cast-list on IMDb. It is nice to see them, and they add a bit of fun. While it can sometimes seem that everyone in an Anderson film is giving the same, stilted performance, the actors herein exhibit variety in their deadpan delivery that is even more impressive given the context. The movie succeeds or fails based on their ability to do this, so hats-off to the lot of them.
There is a good chance about half of the audience in my theater didn’t like this movie. In the end, I’m not sure I can even tell you why I did like it, other than to say in this case, I accepted Mr. Anderson’s terms – I entered into his world and adapted to the rules he put in place. After that, it was just a sweet, funny, surprising ride.