Saw Wes Anderson's latest movie Moonrise Kingdom on a whim last weekend. I might best be described as "agnostic" about his work--I have seen The Royal Tennenbaums and The Fantastic Mr. Fox, and liked them well enough, but not so much that I was compelled to devour his entire oeuvre. I am a fan of Bill Murray, which might make you think I would have gone out of my way to see The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, but then you would be wrong. And I have never seen Rushmore, although I have an idea that Murray might be in it?
So, I'm not in a position to completely explicate the precise location of this latest movie in Anderson's development as an artiste. On the other hand, I am not jaded about his quirks and tropes. I am a casual movie-goer who likes the discipline of sitting in a dark room where I cannot be interrupted, and I go to be told a story. Moonrise Kingdom entertained me and gave me some lovely things to look at and told me a story about people I had not already seen. Plus there was a refreshing lack of car crashes, fireballs, and snarky one-liners delivered before murdering another human being.
The story is simple: In September of 1965, twelve year old Suzy Bishop lives on the Maine-like island of "New Penzance" with her distant parents (Frances McDormand and Bill Murray) and three younger brothers. Twelve year old Sam Shukusky is on the island as a "Khaki Scout"--highly decorated and disliked by all the other boys. The two met the previous year, at a performance of Benjamin Britten's "Noye's Fludd" where Suzy played a raven. They wrote letters to each other and plotted to run away together. Sam brings his survivalist knowledge acquired during his years as a Khaki Scout, as well as the requisite gear. Suzy brings half a dozen large library books and a battery operated record player. Plus extra batteries. Between them, they make an idyllic existence that lasts only a short while. But while it lasts, they live with a sureness of purpose and an unshakeable belief in their love for each other that is both highly stylized and fundamentally true about first love.
In contrast, the adults in the movie are at best befuddled, all of them more than a little lost in their own lives. Suzy's parents share a roof and little else. Bruce Willis plays the chief of the Island police force: he seems ill equipped to handle the case of the missing children, and his "affair" with Frances McDormand seems to consist of sharing cigarettes and the occasional handshake. Edward Norton is the Khaki Scout leader who "loses" first Sam, and ultimately his entire troop. The only truly competent adult is Tilda Swinton, as "Social Services" who is dispatched to the island to "intake" Sam and find him a new placement--most probably an orphanage.
So what happens? Sam and Suzy run away and camp for a few days across the island. The Khaki Scouts and police mobilize to find them. Suzy is sent home, and Sam is sent to bunk with Bruce Willis until he can be sent to Social Services on the mainland. However, the rest of the scouts have a change of heart, and decide to re-unite the young lovers and help them escape. They enlist the help of Cousin Ben (Jason Schwartzman) who also marries them in a brief Scout-Jamboree type ceremony, while explicitly acknowledging that due to their youth, lack of parental consent, and other problems, the ceremony has no legal force but may have some moral effect. The kids then sail to a larger island, where the Khaki Scouts are assembling for a summer's end celebration. There is another chase, a major storm, flooding, some heroic saves, and ultimately resolution. Suzy remains at home, where Sam visits her, driven surreptitiously by his new [foster? adoptive?] father, Bruce Willis.
The joy in the movie is in the details--which is probably self-evident, given that it is a Wes Anderson film. The opening scene pans through Suzy's home, each room as squared and tidy as a doll house. When Sam is discovered missing from his tiny tent, Scout Master Edward Norton finds a hole cut in the canvas and covered by a map, like the escape route from Shawshank Redemption. One night, as the scouts are helping them escape, Suzy reads to the whole troop from one of her books, in a scene reminiscent of Wendy telling bedtime stories to the Lost Boys in Peter Pan.
The island is lovely, the acting is extremely low key, the plot is largely incidental to the visual beauty--even the campsites Sam sets up make little objective sense. Why put Suzy's suitcase there? But the style is in service to the overarching nostalgia of the theme--this is what a first love feels like, and these are the artifacts of that time that evoke that memory. So the period props--the record player, the library books, the clumsy suitcase, the badly stenciled scouting equipment--are deployed as totems of a time that exists only in memory, that can only be roughly re-created, just as the feeling of being twelve and on an adventure can only be vaguely understood by the adults in the movie or communicated to a movie-going audience.
Worth seeing? I'd recommend it--it's lovely storytelling in a highly fictive fashion, using the inherent realism of movies to de-familiarize the visual and making it all feel like the stories Suzy reads aloud around the campfire.
Also--the charming official website for the movie is worth exploring.