Sunday, June 23, 2013
Sunday Review: Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
“I love you, but you don't what you’re talking about.”
Throughout his filmography, Wes Anderson has frequently dealt with dysfunctional adults who seem to exhibit the emotional maturity of adolescents. It was fun to watch for his first few efforts, but - by the time The Darjeeling Limited rolled around in 2007 - it was becoming somewhat tired. So it is entirely fitting that Moonrise Kingdom, not only a return to form, but a congealing of the elements and ideas Anderson’s been playing at all along, has for its two main protagonists children. Anderson’s characters have always seemed to come from broken childhoods, so tracing them back to the source allows us to easier relate to them here, instead of trying to shoehorn in empathy for disaffected, unstable manchildren. But even separate from the director’s other works, Moonrise Kingdom is wonderful piece of craftsmanship; equal parts heartfelt and bittersweet and affecting in ways that most movies never even attempt.
The film takes place in 1965, and tells the story of Sam Shakusky, a recent orphan who lost his parents in a car accident and has now abandoned his “Khaki Scout” troop to meet up with Suzy Bishop, a girl his age who he met previously at a church pageant and became pen pals with. The daughter of two unhappy lawyers and with three younger brothers, Suzy has a host of her own problems, but finds solace in her friendship with Sam. The two of them cause a stir when they decide to run away together to a secluded part of the island where they all live, New Penzance.
A casual glance at Anderson’s style would seem to suggest a cold, emotionless world, but the emotions are always present - they’re just so strong they must be held at a distance, lest they threaten to destroy the characters from the inside out. It meshes well with the “dollhouse” look of filmmaking Anderson employs - none of it is quite real, but the world is so rich with detail it feels like it actually exists out there, somewhere. The film opens with the now-classic Anderson tracking shot of a multi-tiered set, the home of Suzy Bishop. Playing over the scene is The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, a composition by Benjamin Britten in which each segment of the orchestra is introduced and explained in voiceover - much like what Anderson does here, as an ever-present Bob Balaban introduces us and explains the history of the fictional island of New Penzance throughout. By introducing us to his world in such a fashion, Anderson takes apart the mechanics of what is a fairly simple love story, removing whatever could be construed as manipulative or forced, and puts it all back together again in the end into something both unique and universal.
The performances across the board are all phenomenal, but the two young stars, Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward, impressively carry the bulk of the main story - everything happening in the movie revolves around the burgeoning relationship between Sam and Suzy. We meet Suzy first, a misunderstood girl prone to violent tantrums and who spends most of her time reading Young Adult fantasy novels and looking at things through binoculars. The film expertly builds up to Sam’s first appearance, making the twelve-year-old feel like some outlaw hero as he traipses through the wilderness set to Hank Williams. Still reeling from the loss of his parents, Sam too is prone to lashing out - making him unpopular with his fellow Scouts and any foster family that dares to host him. The two come together through a mutual understanding of pain that most their age have yet to feel, and come to an understanding that they need each other to survive. Gilman and Hayward awkwardly feel their way through scenes, giving the hyper-real nature of the film a level of authenticity that usually is abandoned when professional actors “act.” But the chemistry between them flows smoothly despite their overall awkwardness - both arriving at their own sexual awakening and eager to explore it, the film never descends into anything that would rob them of their innocence; making the scenes where they kiss and dance in their underwear cute instead of uncomfortable.
Equally up to the task are the adults, made up of some Anderson regulars, a few newcomers who seem tailor-made for the director, and at least one who you would never associate with Anderson but proves to be a worthy collaborator overall. Ed Norton plays Scout Master Randy: a by-the-book, uptight mentor if ever there was one. And while it’s clear that the strict Randy doesn’t have much of a life outside of his Khaki Scout troop, the character is never antagonistic or mean like he would be in most movies, and deeply cares about his scouts; most especially Sam (there’s a sweet-natured scene where - after being caught with Suzy the first time - Randy says he would have given Sam’s campsite a grade of “Commendable”). Bill Murray and Frances McDormand play Suzy’s parents, and do a lot with a limited amount of screen-time. Murray in particular is fantastically understated - expertly portraying a thoroughly broken man with only the slightest of touches. Perhaps most surprising amongst the cast is Bruce Willis as the island’s Police Captain Duffy Sharp, who (thankfully) takes a break from his bored, laconic action hero persona to give a really wonderful performance - it’s movies like this and Looper which show just how good Bruno can be, and hopefully he’ll continue taking on similar challenging roles in between needless Expendables and Die Hard sequels. Couple that with welcome appearances form Harvey Keitel, Tilda Swinton, Jason Schwartzman and the afore-mentioned Balaban, and you have a solid adult cast surrounding the two lead kids.
The thing that’s most endearing about Moonrise Kingdom is how understanding it is to all of its characters. Conflict is the root of all drama, yes, but that doesn’t mean one side has to be uglier than the other to make our heroes look all the better. Even though they’re constantly at odds, none of the characters come off as mean-spirited or “bad.” They’re all just misunderstood, and all of the characters ultimately only want what’s best for each other.
In the end, the only real fault of the movie is how humdrum and pedestrian it makes all others feel, leaving you with the question, “Why can’t all the movies be like this?”