Starring Kara Hayward, Jared Gilman, and Bruce Willis
My rating: ★★★★ stars
Engaging and delightfully odd film about first love.
I’m not a fan of Wes Anderson’s films. I had to be lured to see Moonrise Kingdom with the promise of a trip to my favorite restaurant. The problem for me with his films is not that they’re quirky but that, too often, the quirkiness impedes the emotional connection that viewers want to have with characters. That’s not the case with Moonrise Kingdom. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the film was appealing, with a lot of heart. With a solid emotional foundation, the quirkiness seems delightful rather than irritating.
At the center of the film are two troubled 12-year-olds: Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) and Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman). I’m generally not a fan of child characters in movies. Too often, filmmakers make the children annoyingly precocious in an attempt to make them cute. Yes, both Suzy and Sam are precocious, but Anderson recognizes that their precocity doesn’t necessarily make them cute and lovable. Indeed, their problem is that they are not lovable. No one likes having them around. They are painfully aware of this but don’t have the wisdom or maturity to figure out how to fit in socially.
These two misfits run off together, prompting a search all over New Penzance, a fictional tiny island off the coast of Maine. This island gives the film a great sense of place. The events in the story develop organically out of the environs of the island and its terrain.
The first half of the movie splits its time between scenes of Suzy and Sam roaming the island and scenes of the adult characters and members of Sam’s scout troop searching for them. The search is led by the island’s only police officer, Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), a lonely, middle-aged bachelor, who comes to empathize deeply with the orphaned Sam. Suzy expresses her wish to be an orphan, too, having a troubled relationship with her lawyer parents (Frances McDormand and Bill Murray).
Also participating in the search is Sam’s scoutmaster (Edward Norton). All the adult roles, including Bob Balaban as the narrator, Harvey Keitel as the regional scout commander, Tilda Swinton as the representative of social services, and Jason Schwartzman as an older, slightly shady scout, capture perfectly the rhythms of the screenplay, bringing to life characters that don’t quite reflect actual human behavior, but seem vivid and real just the same. Each adult has a distinct personality and set of feelings and goals. The screenplay, by Anderson and Roman Coppola, could have populated the film with stock, clichéd characters. Instead, they’re unique individuals. Often, in Anderson’s films, the characters are so quirky and unique that they seem to be lifeless artifices, but that’s not the case here.
The tone of the first half is light and playful, but the film takes a dark turn in the second half when a hurricane, presaged by the narrator at the beginning of the movie, hits the island. The stakes are raised and the events take on a life-or-death quality. However, the eccentricity typical of Anderson’s films here provides a comfort. Nothing seems too dangerous in this slightly fantastic world.
The keys to the film’s success are the endearing performances of its young leads, Hayward and Gilman. The audience comes to want these unhappy but plucky and courageous children to succeed in finding a place to belong. They provide the heart that draws viewers into the enchanting world of Moonrise Kingdom.