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Moonrise Kingdom is a true original. It's hard to describe just what it is- a story of young love, a children's adventure that's not entirely appropriate for children, a droll comedy that nonetheless can be deadly serious about the feelings involved. I've never seen a movie quite like it, but it's endearing, beautifully made, and even though it has so many of Wes Anderson's signature touches, it feels like a quantum leap for him. This is a special one, folks.
It's the story of Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward), two just-about-teenage kids who shared a glance and a moment at a church play one night, and since then have concocted a plan to run away together. He's an oprhan and unpopular member of the Khaki Scouts who is about to be kicked out of his army barracks of a foster home. Suzy's a dreamer whose mother (Frances McDormand) is having an affair with the local lawman (Bruce Willis), and whose father (Bill Murray) is an increasingly pathetic drunk. Sam leads the way to an unsettled patch of the tiny island of New Penzance, and there the two read, dance, and grow ever so awkwardly closer. But their disappearance has set off a massive search involving her parents, the Khaki scouts (led by Edward Norton), and most everyone else on the island, and their search threatens to tear the young lovers away from each other- especially once Social Services gets involved (Social Services being played by Tilda Swinton.)
The tiny world of New Penzance is sketched out in glorious detail, with lush visuals and a slightly battered retro aesthetic, established early on by the opening credits which take us on a diorama tour of Suzy's house. Anderson and co-writer Roman Coppola quickly establish not just the visual style but the sense of a world with its own rules, slightly unreal but internally consistent, and everyone speaking in a way that, while affected, is never forced. The film is full of little details, like Suzy's suitcase full of young adult fantasies and sci-fi adventures (all of which are a hair's breadth away from being real books), or the Khaki Scouts who are organized like a military unit in a war movie. (Bob Balaban shows up to provide some narration, because of course he belongs here.) What distinguishes this from a hundred other quirky indies is the sense that everything belongs. Anderson never gets quite enough credit as a storyteller, but the techniques he uses- insert shots, frequent use of letters and clippings, matter-of-fact flashbacks- lend an efficiency to what could easily have been a mess.
Of course, much of this rests on Sam and Suzy's shoulders, and the scenes between the two kids are frankly adorable. Both actors are great discoveries, entirely convincing themselves and possessing a very sweet, very awkward chemistry on screen. The film doesn't step away from some of the things two kids these age would start to consider, but manages to stop short of Reddit levels of creepiness. They're fundamentally innocent, but they interact in a believable way even in unbelievable surroundings.
Throughout the film there's a tension between the innocence of the children's plan and the harsh realities of life around them, but the filmmakers avoid the pitfalls of this kind of story almost entirely. It's never too saccharine, but it's always warm and sympathetic- even if the movie shows the kids' dream as impractical, there's no doubt as to whose side we're on. There may be one or two characters that might be close to villains, but for the most part it's a work of incredible empathy.
I'm a longtime fan of Wes Anderson, not just tolerating but celebrating his quirky theatricality, but even I wasn't really prepared for how startlingly fresh this movie is. It's richly funny and warm without being cloying or over-indulgent. It has the spring of youth, the joy of discovery to it, tempered slightly by the knowledge of the perils that befall us when we inevitably grow up. It's hard not to be charmed by the two crazy kids at Moonrise Kingdom's center, and what they create for themselves is something genuinely beautiful.
Written by Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola
Directed by Wes Anderson