SFF: Moonrise Kingdom – Wes Anderson and the fun of films

Moonrise Kingdom is Wes Anderson back in form  – we’ve all seen enough of his films now to know if we love them or hate them – and for me this is one of his better ones. I had a lovely, easy, pleasant time with this film.  Feel good that actually makes me feel good is rather rare in my world, but Moonrise Kingdom has that rare quality of treating its audience with great intelligence while also not taking itself too seriously. (A problem I found with the other child narration I saw this weekend – Beasts of the Southern Wild which takes itself enormously seriously).

In 1965, a pair of twelve-year-old lovers, Sam and Suzy, flee their New England island town, prompting a local search party led by the Sheriff and the Suzy’s parents to fan out to find them.

Sam is an orphan who is attending a “Khaki Scout” summer camp led by Scout Master Randy Ward. Suzy is summering on the island with her dysfunctional, attorney parents, Walt and Laura, in a lighthouse. Sam and Suzy met the previous summer on this island in New England during a church performance of Noye’s Fludde by Benjamin Britten, and they remained penpals over the following year. They eventually fell in love and decided to reunite the following summer and run away together on the island. After several days of camping together in the wilderness on the island and being pursued by the scouts, parents, and police, they are eventually apprehended on a church steeple during a violent hurricane and flood, evoking the earlier references to Noah.

This is a film about two misfit children who fall in love and decide they will run away together from their dysfunctional family situations.  Moonrise Kingdom is this kind of celebration of the facade of middle America, and yet it’s the facade we wish were true, rather than the one that perhaps (as I read in Peter Bradshaws  Guardian review) David Lynch manages to find in the undercurrents of suburban life.

There is a poignant moment  – completely under developed in the film – where the parents of young Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) are doing a little self reflection in light of her running away after being labeled a “troubled child”. Laura Bishop (Francis McDormand) has decided that she is going to give up an affair and recommit to her family. She apologies to her husband Walt (really brilliantly played by Bill Murray) and says they both have to try to be better.  When Walt asks her why, she says “For them.  Because we’re all they have,” meaning their four children. Walt turns away from her and stares at the ceiling and says “It’s not enough.”

Where such attitudes to parenting are usually condemned in contemporary culture because they are considered to produce dysfunctional misfits and psychopaths, in a Wes Anderson film, this attitude produces remarkably precocious, adventurous completely self-reliant children capable of making the most complex decisions with an assuredness one can’t help feeling will work out. This optimism is complete fantasy – we absolutely know that kind of parental attitude will create a profound insecurity in a child – and yet Wes Anderson wants to play out the fairytale fantasy of children that have the moral fortitude to gather their wits, not take it all out on the world, and commit to their own individual growth as human creatures.

This attitude in Suzy’s parents is posited against the care and nurturing exhibited by two childless males in the film, Captain Sharp – I love these names – (Bruce Willis) and Scout Master Randy Ward (Edward Norton).  Both these men genuinely love the orphaned Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) and both will represent the redemption for all the adults on the small New England Island. Interestingly they are male, single and childless, wonderful characters, both unique, both filled with Anderson quirk and yet both able to respond to the very gentle emotional rumblings of a child in need.  I guess you could argue this completes the fantasy.

In this way Anderson uses the fairytale construct to give us a kind of moral lesson that is a little deeper and more complex than the usual fairytale one can argue is trying to be re-created in the suburbs.  Good parents are male and single. The uncaring social worker is female (the brilliantly icy Tilda Swinton – is there ANYTHING as chilling as a woman supposed to look after children who is cold?) and the traditional mother is betraying her family under the watchful eyes of her girl-child. This isn’t an attack on women by any means, our biological father is no hero either, its more a wake up call about who can and who can’t parent and how we decide those “rules”.

Having burdened the film with all this psycho babble, I will add that it is an enormous amount of fun and a cheery slice of whimsy. Bill Murray is laugh-out-loud funny as the lost hopeless father of Suzy, and Francis Mc Dormand gives her trade mark wide-eyed, droppy mouthed look that we know is hiding a world of intelligence. Bruce Willis is endearing and Edward Norton just gorgeous.  There is a fantastic moment when he is admonished by his superior, Commander Pierce (a hilariously terrifying Harvy Keitel) for losing his entire troop, that results in a pathos across his face that you can drown in. Jason Schwartzman is great as cousin Ben and Bob Balaban is dead pan as the narrator.

The rising stars of Moonrise Kingdom are the kids, Suzy (Kara Hayward) and Sam (Jared Gilman) both newcomers, both very comfortable in front of the camera.  Sam is wise beyond his years and Suzy has a deadpan detachment that underscores the entire film. Suzy listens to Francoise Hardy on a portable record player stolen from her brother and Sam smokes a corn-cob pipe and sleeps in her lap as she reads to him from her sci-fi novels. Their connection is sophisticated, exploratory and elegant.

The film has a strange note of high-mindedness attached to it also in the form of the music of Benjamin Britten.  Suzy and her siblings listen to Britten’s Young Persons’ Guide to the Orchestra and Suzy performs in a church production of Noye’s Fludde.  The music imposes itself on this world to elevate it despite its uncool-ness. But this is the strength of nuance in Wes Anderson’s films – its the small details that provide the ambiance necessary to evoke mood. Moonrise Kingdom is a patchwork quilt of nuance from the lack of intimacy between the lawyer parents who call each other “councilor” to the small cramped trailer where Captain Shap lives out his small cramped lonely life.

I got a lot out of this film (Ha!  Obviously) and it is definitely one of my favourite of Wes Anderson’s films. If you enjoy his take on the world, then Moonrise Kingdom will be nothing but pure delight.