Dir. Wes Anderson. Starring Jared Gilman, Kara Hayward, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Tilda Swinton, Jason Schwartzman. 94 mins.
Moonrise Kingdom opened Cannes Film Festival earlier this month. Now released in the UK, it’s easy to see why the film has been met with such widespread critical acclaim. Wes Anderson triumphs with this tale of young love, family angst and community problems set on a small island, delivering his best film since 2001’s The Royal Tenenbaums.
It is the summer of ’65. The inhabitants of New Penzance, a small New England island best accessed by the daily mail plane, are decidedly dysfunctional. Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman), an unpopular Boy Scout, watercolour painter and corncob pipe smoker, flees Camp Ivanhoe in order to rendezvous with penpal Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward), a 12-year-old girl with anger issues living on the other side of the island. She shares a large, red house called ‘Summer’s End’ with her brothers and peevish lawyer parents, played by Bill Murray and Frances McDormand. Heading the search party for the two runaways are Scout Master Ward (Ed Norton) and local law enforcement Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis). They are accompanied by the rest of the scouts of 55 Troop who, despite orders to the contrary, arm themselves with bows and blades in case Sam doesn’t come quietly.
As with any Wes Anderson film, the quaint surrealist and theatrical elements soon surface: locales are built like dollhouses; Sam and Suzy are shown to have met a year ago during an incomprehensibly lavish church production of Benjamin Britten’s Noye’s Fludde; Mrs Bishop communicates to her family via megaphone; sailboats glide through calm waters at cartoon-esque speed; children can be struck by lightning only to declare “I’m OK” moments later. An onscreen Bob Balaban narrates to the audience at various moments, speaking with hindsight of an impending storm that forms the backdrop to the film’s church-top finale.
At the heart of Moonrise Kingdom lies forbidden love: no one on the island wants the two runaways to be together. They bond through their outcast status: Sam is an orphan unable to find his place in numerous foster families; Suzy is a confusing disappointment to her parents, who attempt to find ways to deal with her in books such as ‘Coping with the Very Troubled Child.’ Both first-time actors, Gilman and Hayward do an exceptional job portraying the tender and sometimes awkward relationship between the two runaways as they camp in the wilderness. With his brace-induced lisp, Sam displays a precociousness and eccentricity reminiscent of Max Fischer in Anderson’s Rushmore (1998). Similarly, Suzy displays a melancholy and emotional perplexity one would expect of a young Margot in The Royal Tenenbaums (2001). That said, both actors make the characters their own; Anderson ensures their tale of young love plays out with poignant accuracy, right down to the exhilarating yet awkward first kiss.
Bill Murray as Walt Bishop is extremely reminiscent of his previous Wes Anderson incarnations, but his performance as a depressed husband and flailing father trying to recover his troubled young daughter from sexual exploration nonetheless remains a scene-stealer and a particular comical highlight. When his slightly drunk, topless and chubby character emerges from a cupboard with an axe in one hand, a bottle in the other, declaring he is going to find a tree to chop down, it’s hard not to laugh. The rest of the supporting cast complement each other nicely, providing delightful microcosms of island life that flesh out Anderson’s bubble universe. Captain Sharp increasingly sympathises with Sam’s plight, knowing all too well how forbidden love feels as he continues his affair with Mrs. Bishop. Scout Master Ward struggles to hide his self-confidence issues when his entire troop goes missing, displaying a puppy-eyed timidity most apparent when alone in his tent at night.
Still only 43, Wes Anderson has built up an extraordinary list of self-contained idylls in his 16 year career: the island of New Penzance; the Tenenbaum household; the Foxes’ tree house and the research vessel Belafonte, to name but a few. Moonrise Kingdom bears all the trademark aesthetics, fetish props (record players, picture books) and eccentricities we’ve come to love from Anderson’s six previous feature films, but it is not enough to lay on buzzwords like ‘kooky’ and ‘fanciful’ to describe the auteur’s work. Wes Anderson is an immensely powerful and invigorating filmmaker. Expertly paced and refreshingly honest, Moonrise Kingdom might just be the most touching, realistic portrayal of young love to take place on a surreal, dysfunctional island.
Showing at City Screen: