Wednesday, June 13, 2012

In the Court of the Moonrise King

Suzy and Sam in a field in Moonrise Kingdom
Suzy and Sam get their bearings in Moonrise Kingdom   ©2012 Focus Features
Sometimes things just work out right. "Moonrise Kingdom," the latest from director Wes Anderson is a good case in point. Those who are already acolytes of Mr. Anderson will need no convincing that this is a brilliant work; those who are not may actually find themselves understanding what all the fuss is about. "Moonrise Kingdom" is the perfect blend of components.

The story, on its simplest level is about a pair of 12-year-olds, Sam and Suzy (played by newcomers Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward respectively), who, smitten, run away together. Sam uses his scout troop's trip to New Penzance Island, Suzy's home, to enact the plan they have been brewing since first meeting during his trip to the island a year earlier. Their ensuing adventure, including being pursued by the  authorities (Suzy's parents, Sam's scoutmaster, and the island cop) drives what is, at heart, a chase movie. Of course, nothing about "Moonrise Kingdom" is quite that straight-forward.

Set in 1965, "Moonrise Kingdom"  exists in a time and place that feels just familiar enough that it makes us fall fully for the illusion. The world Anderson shows us doesn't exist and never did. Instead, it is an utterly fictional place, with every element stylized to evoke a memory, feeling, or longing. Should such things not reside in your subconscious, Anderson will implant them. The film's score is outstanding in this respect, setting the perfect tone.

Great credit must go to Gilman and Hayward. Their young lovers are entirely believable in an emotional sense. Awkward, childish, and whole-hearted, their feelings struggle to break through to a mature, adult love. Meanwhile, the adults struggle to find a way to soothe their own aching hearts. Suzy's parents, Walt and Laura Bishop (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) are lawyers, their pillowtalk consisting of details of cases they're working. They are more partners than lovers. Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) of Island Police, a bachelor, is paralyzed by lost love, and Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton), puts all of his energy into leading his scouts. All our characters are looking for fulfillment. They are all variations on a theme, a universal constant. Only Sam and Suzy are brave enough, naive enough, or wise enough to actually pursue it.

Suzy is a devotee of children's fiction, the kind of books children used to read, which told tales of children going on amazing adventures, triumphing over adversity, and growing toward adulthood on the way. This is a rather obvious sign that we are not to let our perceptions of reality constrain "Moonrise Kingdom." It is a fantasy, a tale of a journey, by turns touching, terrifying, and tempestuous, through a landscape of our own making, the wilderness of New Penzance representing the uncharted paths before us, rife with obstacles to be overcome and battles to be fought. That Anderson can make the tumult of burgeoning adolescence and the perpetual uncertainty of adulthood funny and sweet is remarkable. As is often the case with the best fiction, it is marvellously true precisely because it is unconcerned with the facts.

There are bound to be those who criticise "Moonrise Kingdom" for being too twee, or too stylized or simply unrealistic. They are the same kind of people who ask how all the strangers on the street in a musical know the dance steps and where the music is coming from. They will never understand. This is a film for those who can hear the music and haven't forgotten how to dance.

Rating: 5/5