In Moonrise Kingdom, director-to-the-hipster-set Wes Anderson may have finally stumbled upon a cinematic sweet spot in which utter preciousness doesn't drown out the genuine charm of his film. Co-written with Roman Coppola, Anderson's latest is a tender, fanciful, bittersweet, and, yes, occasionally too-cute-for-its-own-good foray into the magic of childhood and the nostalgic appeal of belle laide WASP furnishings and behavior.
Moonrise Kingdom opens with a peek into the humming activity contained inside the dollhouse-adorable Bishop home. A cheery red clapboard house that Anderson shows in long shot, the dwelling perfectly aligns with a needlepoint sampler seen on the home's interior wall. It's home to three small boys, an artistic and doleful preteen Suzy (an adorable Kara Hayward), and a set of lawyer parents Laura (Frances McDormand) and Walt (Bill Murray) who are a couple of brainy sad sacks cocooned in their own unhappiness and quilt-shrouded single beds. The Bishops' stomping ground is the remote New England island of New Penzance accessible only by sea plane and ferry. It's as ferociously idiosyncratic and closed a world as the New York brownstone that contains the mad-capped eccentrics in The Royal Tenenbaums or the claustrophobic submarine in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Those carefully calibrated settings are the way Anderson crafts the world into a stylized theatrical tableaux while also returning again and again to his themes of parents, children, and suffocating/sublime family dynamics.
Across the island lives an equally unhappy 12-year-old boy Sam (Jared Gilman) who is also Suzy's soulmate. Sam has escaped from the Khaki Scout camp through a hole cut in his pup tent, much to the horror of Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton), the stuntedly boyish, deeply earnest troop leader depressed by his AWOL scout.
Sam's plan is to rendezvous with Suzy, a dreamy, blue eyeshadow-wearing lass with one foot in childhood and the other in precocious womanhood. She loves fantastical novels with girl heroines (some of Anderson's funniest nonverbal design elements are the hyper-retro illustrations and author photos ornamenting Suzy's books) but also dances in her underwear to provocative French chanteuse Francoise Hardy. The pair stumble with their American Tourister luggage and coon skin caps through the wilds of New Penzance, the authorities and Suzy's parents hot on their trail.
There is something undeniably heartfelt in Anderson's yarn of two misfit kids, the artistic Suzy and the orphaned Sam, who find acceptance and love in each other's arms. After leading police chief Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) and Scout Master Ward on a merry goose chase, the children set up camp on a remote island cove. It represents that magical pined-for place of all children's dreams, a special world apart where they are free to make their own rules, show their true selves, and kiss and dance to sexy French records. On their escape into the wilderness, they bring along the things they love best, like a dead mother's brooch, a favorite pair of scissors, and books. Anderson and Coppola convey the imaginative and soothing world children wrap around themselves via these beloved objects.
Child actors Gilman and Hayward are perfectly cast, still gawky and utterly appealing but not knockouts. They have the look of real children, and their ordinariness is an essential part of their charm. That unglamorous casting extends throughout the film, from the frumpy Bishop parents to the all-American faces of Sam's fellow scouts, who finally, when push comes to shove, turn from vigilantes hunting down the wayward kids to sympathetic champions of the star-crossed lovers. Themes of loyalty, true romance, and parental love for a child not your own give Moonrise Kingdom a core of sweetness that erases any of the manufactured adorableness that often gums up Anderson's works.
Anderson can sometimes become so enamored with style and nostalgic generational references that his stories get swamped by Kate Spade ambiance. But in Moonrise Kingdom Anderson's retro style works perfectly with an air of earnestness and melancholy that seems a remnant of a lost age. Anderson's repeated power zooms; his oily, hazy Kodachrome-evoking film stock; a visible copyright notice at the film's opening — all work in tandem to give Moonrise Kingdom the look of an artsy film circa 1965, the story's time frame.
Ultimately, Moonrise Kingdom is about one love affair between Suzy and Sam on the upsurge and another, between the Bishop parents, fizzling out, a parallel construction that gives the film its bittersweet, lovely, unique tone.