By Joan Ellis
Moonrise Kingdom is a marvelously goofy concoction that makes us smile in wonder at the mind that created it. The initial seed, apparently, was Wes Anderson’s memory of being a schoolboy who once loved a girl from afar without ever telling her how he felt – a familiar tale of first love. But Wes Anderson had to do something about it. He has written and directed a grand surprise.
It is 1965, and we will spend a short while on the island of New Penzance, off the coast of New England. Of those who live in its 16 wooded miles, only two encampments are of interest to us. One is the sprawling house of the Bishop family. The other is the Ivanhoe Boy Scout Camp whose scoutmaster is Mr. Ward (Edward Norton).
At the Bishops we meet Mom (Frances McDormand) and Dad (Bill Murray), a gaggle of small boys, and older sister Suzy (Kara Hayward), a solemn teenager who stares for long periods into the distance through her binoculars. What is she looking for? She is looking for whatever is out there that might free her from her discontent. Hoping for something more than being an outsider in school and family, she is too young to suspect that her otherness just might be the key to a great adulthood.
In the Boy Scout camp, Sam (Jared Gilman) is the most unpopular guy in camp for many trivial reasons that we grasp very quickly. On a troop visit to the local school play, Sam meets Suzy, falls in instant love and makes a plan. Unwilling to live among their dull peers, the two outliers meet in a beautiful meadow and eventually make their way to Moonrise Cove where they – thanks to Sam’s camping training and Suzy’s rich trove of books – can be alone together.
The island, meanwhile, has jumped into full search mode. Scoutmaster Ward, Troop 55, Suzy’s parents, Social Service (Tilda Swinton) and police Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) all reveal their small strengths and weaknesses, but as the movie unfolds, the only thing we really care about is the blossoming friendship between Sam and Suzy.
The secret of this movie’s success is that Wes Anderson sets a tone in the first scene that is sustained throughout by all his actors. And exactly what is this wacky tone? Best to think of it as unexamined formality, a gravity of attention to duty and detail, an absolute lack of humor or self-awareness. In their dutifulness, the grownups always manage to look silly: Mom directing her family through an amplified megaphone, Scoutmaster Ward directing his troops in his short pants and bandana. Sam and Suzy, meanwhile, explore young love in the grave tones of young intellectuals. The mystery here is why the attentive audience sits there in pleasant contentment, laughing gently and continually at a story that looks pale on the page. That is Wes Anderson’s gift to us all.
Joan Ellis’ address on the Internet, which contains her review library, is JoanEllis.com.
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