The films of Wes Anderson are sort of like an addictive drug or Scientology: They aren’t for everybody, but those who love them love them in a way that’s generally incomprehensible to others. I’ve been worshiping in the cult of Anderson since Rushmore, but I understand why his films—mannered, deadpan and precise as they are, always dealing with the intricacies of families and their various dysfunctions—rub some people wrong.
His new film, Moonrise Kingdom, which opens in San Diego on Friday, June 8, is in the same vein, all about screwed-up kids and the screwed-up adults in their lives. It’s more inventive than some of Anderson’s previous films—though, Rushmore is still Anderson’s, um, Rushmore.
Moonrise Kingdom is set in 1965 on the fictional island of Penzance, just off the coast of New England. It’s here that young Sam (Jared Gilman) attends his summer scout camp, which is run by Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton), a dedicated smoker and officious leader. Sam’s the least popular scout, and this we only know by listening to his fellow scouts talk about him. We don’t actually meet Sam straightaway, because he’s left the group and gone off to meet up with Suzy (Kara Hayward), a local tween he met the previous summer. The two fell for one another via letters amid an inability to connect with the adults around them.
It isn’t long before multiple search parties are underway. One is headed by Ward, who had to do his best to keep his scouts from attacking Sam on sight, while the other is led by the local police officer, Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), who’s determined to find Suzy, especially since he has a thing going on with her mother (Frances McDormand), a relationship they’re barely able to keep from her dad (Bill Murray).
Everyone’s determined to prevent Suzy and Sam from being together, and that makes some sense. After all, these kids are 12 years old, and 12-year-olds running away for love is a terrible idea, right? The thing is, Suzy and Sam have the only healthy relationship in the movie, while the grownups, who just seem so sad, are unable to see that supporting these kids is a way to strike a blow for happiness. When Suzy and Sam find their Moonrise Kingdom—and this isn’t a spoiler, so don’t worry—it’s the sweetest scene of the film, because most of us can relate to the amazing sensation of a first kiss or a first love. Tween pregnancy? That’s a bad thing, sure, but this is about young love, and when the rest of the characters get on board with that idea, they start to see that brightening up the world a bit is a positive thing.
If there’s a theme that runs through Anderson’s work, it’s that adults consider children to be problematic, but when they dig a little deeper, they discover that the kids, in fact, are all right—or at least there’s a chance they could be, if only those adults could just get over their own bullshit and give the kids some support. Sam and Suzy are typical in that regard. No one has any idea what to do with them, but as he always does, Anderson explores the reasons behind that in simple and simply heartbreaking ways.
The movie feels a little long, even though it’s quite short, and some of the magical realism toward the end goes a bit too far. But these are minor quibbles, because what I keep coming back to is how warm and wonderful the movie made me feel, how optimistic and hopeful I was when I left the theater. For fans of Anderson’s work, Moonrise Kingdom is pure royalty.