I was a crappy Boy Scout, one who joined the program years later than his peers and dropped out after one semester of boring meetings and a humiliating first-round drubbing in the Pinewood Derby. I would have lasted much longer had the experience in any way resembled Wes Anderson’s delightful Moonrise Kingdom, a tale of young lovers, impending doom and, yes, scouting, set nominally on a fictional New England island circa 1965 but mostly in the dream world of the director’s imagination.
Dominated by young unknowns, Moonrise tells the story of Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward), young teens who flee dysfunctional families to set up a life of their own in the wilderness. Sam is an orphan who feels ostracized from his troop and its dedicated scoutmaster (Edward Norton). Suzy’s disaffection comes from watching the impending collapse of her parent’s (Bill Murray and Francis McDormand) marriage due to mom’s involvement with the island's sheriff (Bruce Willis). Their bags packed (Sam raids the scout camp for provisions; Suzy grabs books and borrows a record player), the kids head into the wild to make a life — with most of the adult population (and Sam’s overly enthusiastic fellow scouts) trying to track down the lovebirds before a hurricane comes ashore.
Moonrise could only have come from Wes Anderson. In addition to co-writing the screenplay (with Roman Coppola), the director’s meticulous attention to detail is on full display, with each shot a moving painting meant to be savored. Moonrise also contains many elements common to Anderson’s work, including a cast full of idiosyncratic individuals with uncommon speech patterns who wear odd clothes and live in a world that seems one parallel universe away from this one. Yes, the film is set in the 1960s (it’s like Anderson threw an Instagram filter over his lens), which goes a long way toward anchoring the film in “reality” — but this is the ’60s as idealized and tweaked by an idiosyncratic filmmaker, not a faithful reproduction of an era.
There’s more to Moonrise than a triumph of style over substance, and underneath the artifice of goofy clothes and dialogue beats a human heart. These characters are smart (even the guy referred to as “dumb” proves himself more intelligent than most) and driven by emotions that feel authentic. Anderson allows real romance to develop in the relationship between his tween leads, but he also finds an underlying truth about the nature of family, and how hating the family you’ve got is still better then not having one at all.
The actors go a long way toward selling this material, starting with newcomers Gilman and Hayward. Once the kids are on their own, Moonrise almost turns into Blue Lagoon-lite, but Anderson’s direction and the performances are way too clever to wallow in teen titillation. McDormand is her usual excellent self, creating in a few short scenes a complicated housewife with cabin fever. Of the men, Norton and Willis stand out, but I was less impressed with Bill Murray this time around (he’s doing his less-is-more understated thing here) — though, in fairness, his role is thankless.
Moonrise Kingdom stinks like December Oscar bait, but the summer camp setting makes for an ideal May/June release. I hope it doesn’t get lost among the battling superheroes and male strippers that will dominate the multiplex over the next few weeks. And I hope the Academy makes a mental note and remembers Moonrise come award season. It’s the best movie of the year … so far.