‘Moonrise Kingdom’: Get lost in Anderson World

May 22, 2012

Is there anything headier, happier and more confusing than first love? Of course not.

That sensation is captured perfectly in Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom,” as wonderfully odd and formal a film as Anderson has made. Even in Anderson’s detail-oriented obsession with symmetry and control of his images, he manages to let the unpredictability and volatility of young love burst through at unexpected moments.

Anderson’s film, opening in limited release Friday (5/25/12), is, ostensibly, a comedy. But its humor and its joys are never the obvious sort that most movie comedy uses as oxygen. If anything, there’s a certain giddy airlessness to Anderson’s films in general – and to “Moonrise Kingdom” in particular. And yet that cinematic hypoxia creates its own kind of high, if you can adjust to the altitude.

Not everyone can – nor will everyone want to. No doubt Anderson will be tarred once again with the brush of quirkiness, as though he were some camera-toting Zooey Deschanel, shooting whatever struck his fancy and giggling about it afterward. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Rather, Anderson has a story to tell and a very specific way he wants to tell it. He’s not disregarding the audience; he’s simply not pandering to it. The audience has to meet him halfway. If they do, they’ll find a rich, strange parallel world – essentially another corner of the same universe in which the characters of his other films dwell (including the stop-motion figures in “Fantastic Mr. Fox”).

Set on an island that feels like New England (though Anderson makes a point of never mentioning which state we’re in, other than an Andersonian one) in September 1965, the story is centered on two preteens: Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward). Suzy lives on the island with her parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) and her three younger brothers. Sam is a regular summer visitor to the island as a member of the Khaki Scouts (a Boy Scouts analog), which has an island encampment, run by Scoutmaster Ward (Edward Norton).

Sam “resigns” from Scouts, escaping from his tent to meet up with Suzy (with whom he has been corresponding during the school year). Their epistolary relationship has struck sparks of youthful romance, though neither of them is all that sophisticated about what that entails (because it’s 1965; with 12-year-olds today, forget about it).

Sam packs enough camping supplies to live on their own; Suzy’s contribution is a battery-powered portable record player, a kitten in a carrier, and her favorite record (a 45 by Francoise Hardy). They swim, Sam catches fish and cooks and they make halting forays into romance. This amounts primarily to hugging and kissing, followed by a little French kissing (relatively tentative) and her invitation for some light petting: “You can touch my top if you want,” she says, standing in front of him in her bra and shorts. He complies by solemnly laying his hand on her breast, as though feeling for a heartbeat.

Their disappearance causes an uproar among the island’s adults: Scoutmaster Ward, the Bishops (who are both lawyers) and the local police chief (Bruce Willis), who is having a slightly sad affair with Mrs. Bishop. The search turns into a hunt and the hunt, eventually, into a chase. Alliances are formed and broken, as different adults find themselves drawn to this romance of young souls in a hostile world. Toss in an approaching hurricane and an unreliable dam and you have the makings of what passes for drama in a film as carefully assembled as Anderson’s.

I say assembled not as a pejorative but as a descriptive. Each scene, even each image, seems to have been considered and reconsidered before Anderson committed it to film. To some, the shifting color scheme (and the schematic colors), the framing of each moment, the period flavor of the dialogue (as carefully wrought as the Coen brothers’ in “Miller’s Crossing,” only more innocent) will undoubtedly seem mannered, rather than considered, pretentious rather than inspired. The only moments when the camera and the characters bust loose – if only momentarily – are about that rush of feeling that new love can bring about, when the world seems so rife with sensation that you feel as though you will explode if you don’t run, jump or otherwise toss inhibition to the wind.

Even the score is deliberately chosen, consisting mostly of work by composer Benjamin Britten and the songs of Hank Williams, as odd a musical couple as you’re likely to find. Williams’ songs have an alternately upbeat and mournful, lovesick quality; Britten’s work arouses all sorts of feelings, ultimately giving what might seem like a trifle about young love the gravity of a life-or-death situation (which, to the characters, it is).

Those choices, too, can be second-guessed as arch or inspired. That, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. Anderson’s filmmaking is like that of some eccentrically driven visionary, hoping to extract big feelings out of the smallest moments. And he does.

In part, the film works because of the casting of the kids. It’s not just Jared Gilman as Sam or Kara Hayward as Suzy, though they are nearly perfect. Gilman has the slightly bleary intensity of a young River Phoenix, who he resembles, despite his Buddy Holly/Elvis Costello glasses. There’s a determination, a set to the jaw, that is offset (or, perhaps, underscored) by his obviously lunatic passion for Suzy.

In contrast, Hayward has a certain steely quality, tempered by a fiery tendency to unleash violence on her tormenters. She can shift from girlish reticence to fierce female warrior at the mention of the scissors she used to stab a Khaki Scott who has come to capture the young lovers.

The adults are as good as the kids, with Willis giving a particularly subtle and even heart-breaking performance as the quietly lovelorn police chief who feels a surprising connection to young Sam. Murray and McDormand are a peppery couple; Murray blends aloofness and authority in a way that still can’t mask the roiling emotions he is trying to keep in check. McDormand is the wife who may still be his partner but has stopped being his lover, except out of obligation – and is always a mom underneath.

“Moonrise Kingdom” is a masterpiece that perfectly captures an imaginative world that springs wholly from the mind of Wes Anderson, with nary a false move. But its pleasures require the viewer to give up preconceptions of what a movie ought to be and simply surrender to Anderson’s vision.

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