Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom was the opening film of this year’s Cannes Film Festival and aims to appeal to the indie fans who’ve been under-served in recent weeks.
Word of a new Wes Anderson film instils fear in as many hearts as it sets aflutter. His affected filmmaking style, the idolisation of ‘twee’ and his familiar company of actors are very much an acquired taste, one very much unsuited to those without joy in their lives.
It’s 1965 and the small New England town in which Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward) live is isolated on a lake, cut off from society and with it’s own particular breed of community. Sam and Suzy are in love, and when they decide to run away together it throws their town into turmoil. Sam and Suzy are just twelve years old and as they pursue their young love, the townspeople band together to find them and in the process learn a little bit more about themselves as a storm approaches…
It goes without saying that Moonrise Kingdom is very much a Wes Anderson film. In fact, it may be the most Wes Anderson-y of all the Wes Anderson films so far. It’s a culmination of a very specific body of work, and if there was something you liked there, it’s more than likely you’ll find it here. The familial discontent of The Royal Tenenbaums? Check. The precocious and delusional teenager in love from Rushmore? Check. The Stop Motion diversions of Fantastic Mr. Fox and The Life Aquatic? Check, check and so on. But for all the immediate outcries of “more of the same”, what’s important is that this time there’s more…
Anderson has always been fascinated by the children of parents, no matter how old they are but here for the first time he’s foregrounding the very young. At an almost believable twelve years of age, Sam and Suzy are taking the first steps into something that will one day be taken for granted. When we join their story, they’re already in love. Aside from one delightful flashback and a series of letters cut in such a way as to leave us wanting more, this is a relationship in progress.
Anderson (and co-writer Roman Coppola) knows we’ve all seen the meet cute before, so we jump right in. While there’s plenty of information to understand why these two feel such a (literal) spark, it’s not necessary to enjoy watching two innocent people discover the ”first kiss’ on their own, unaffected by decades of movies and TV shows telling them how it should be. Even when it edges uncomfortably close to pre-teen sexuality, Anderson pulls it back towards the right side of twee.
He’s helped by two electric child actors in Gilman and Hayward, so good are they that there’s been little need to dwell on the experienced adult cast around them. Hayward in particular is incredibly fascinating in her deceptively still mannerisms and their pairing makes sense. At first glance she may seem to be ‘out of his league’ but his determination, unfettered affection and a past that speaks to the things she feels she wants make it entirely believable.
Everyone else is as splendid as expected but Anderson is wise to let them take a backseat to his lesser known stars. Edward Norton is on particularly fine form, reminding us why he’s one of the greatest working actors of his generation (something that’s been easier to forget than it should be recently) portraying part-time Math Teacher and full-time Scout Master Randy. His devotion to his ‘job’ masking a lifetime of discontent and slow social progression is never overplayed, and in particular in a scene with Harvey Keitel, Norton breaks your heart with just one look. Bill Murray, Frances McDormand do what they do and they do it well, while Bruce Willis almost steals the show with a lived in performance just one shade shy of suicidal.
In fact, in a town so devoid of authority figures that Scout Masters outnumber the Police Officers it’s easy to see why Sam and Suzy would want to escape. Similar to Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm (where the burgeoning sexuality of suburban children was contrasted against their lacking parents as a storm approaches), Kingdom presents a pervading sadness to the town, that although people live here by choice there may be very little hope for their happiness. By staying there, Sam and Suzy could be destined for the same, a representation of failed ambition. It’s a hallow and tragic moment when you first realise that you’re living the happiest days of your lives and Moonrise Kingdom is about that moment.
This isn’t to say the film is a dour experience – far from it. There’s an obvious maturation in Anderson’s writing, so what you hear is a combination of the whimsy and the melancholy but what you see is once again an almost live action cartoon filtered through the French New Wave. A physics-defying tree-house, a scout troop with unfettered resources, cavernous jumps in a single bound and a dead dog are just a few of the delights in store before the third act and the film opens with an awe-inspiring opening shot, where what appears at first to be the inside of a doll-house is revealed to be the home of Suzy’s family but one in which the children are already the right size for the rooms. Anderson has never been one to shy away from exposing the artificiality of his sets and here he’s thrown all caution to the wind, as if Fantastic Mr. Fox has freed him to re-invent spacial awareness however he pleases.
Technically the film is flawless, gorgeous to look at (thank you Robert D. Yeoman) and as always, sounding like a dream. Be sure to stick around through the credits for a hilarious deconstruction of the work of Mr. Desplat.
“Why don’t you like me?” asks Sam at one point to a fellow Scout in the infirmary. There’s no need to spoil the answer, but it’s framed as a direct question to Anderson’s detractors. At this point if you don’t like him or his work, the gauntlet has been thrown down for an answer.
Personally, it’s a question I don’t have to answer.