Like all of Wes Anderson’s work, "Moonrise Kingdom" feels like a film made by the characters who populate it. The same earnest abandon and melancholic depression that we see in his films’ community imbue themselves in his craft; externalized through the eternal splendor of a beach that seems truly cut off from the rest of society, or through the cold blue gels that tint the most troubling moments. It’s a tribute to the idealism of young love and the inevitable disappointment of the adult years that follow it; a film that is honest about the inherent silliness of youthful passion but embraces it with exuberance anyway. A beautiful ode to the healing power of human connections, "Moonrise" will make you laugh, make you cry, and then make you want to watch it again.
In 1965, Sam and Suzy run away from the island of New Penzance (which, according to narrator Bob Balaban, is off the coast of New England, allowing Anderson to take glee in composing shots around perfectly painted lighthouses and homes) to escape from their mutual solitude: she wants distance from her family, from her three clueless brothers, from her overbearing father, from her emotionally cruel mother. He’s an orphan, the least-liked boy "by a large margin" in the Khaki Scouts (also, ignore the knock-off name - this is the best movie ever made about the ingenuity and curiosity that comes with being a Boy Scout) and in her love sees his only chance at forging a real, worthwhile human connection. They write each other letters, and the way Anderson clips their yearlong discussion into snippets of sentences (first, they babble about themselves, and then slowly begin to become more interested in each other) is a thing of beauty.
And once they have run away, leaving their families and scoutmasters and the police officers of the town behind, something funny happens - the film becomes about the search for them as much as it is about their own courtship. After we spend time with the two dancing, water coloring, French kissing, and anything else their minds can imagine in an invigoratingly original sequence (yes, on a visual level it recalls Belmondo and Karina on the Riviera in "Pierrot Le Fou" - right down to Suzy’s dress and scissors - but have you ever seen a romantic tryst between twelve year-olds treated with such gravity before? I doubt it,) we shift over to the adults, to Suzy’s parents, played by Frances McDormand and Bill Murray.
"Does it concern you that your daughter has just ran away from home?" she asks with an imperativeness that borders on shrill. "That’s a loaded question," he responds. Their marriage has deteriorated into lazily covered up affairs, the passion so far gone that the two sleep in separate beds in the same room. It’s hard not to see why Suzy would run away from such a place; or why she would speak of it with such disdain (she comforts herself by losing her mind in books, and by dreaming of the magical powers she imagines her binoculars bring). She and Sam embody all the hopes that her parents once had, but Wes, despite being a disciple of "The Graduate," leaves it in the subtext - ending on a note of hope that is nothing short of life-affirming. This film breaks your heart and mends it at the same time.
Wes’ interest here is not in the individual but in the community, and his eye stretches further than Sam, Suzy, and her family. Edward Norton is featured as Sam’s scoutmaster, who (like the film itself) is meticulously controlled, and has a warm personable manner that is shattered intermittently by moments of unbreakable melancholy. And Bruce Willis, as police Captain Sharp, lives up to the waning sadness of the Hank Williams’ songs that introduce him - he later explains his life’s failures with a simple "she didn’t love me back" - his weathered eyes hiding behind them a bewilderment towards his neighbors’ lack of compassion and understanding (sequences with him dialing out of the island to speak to foster homes and Social Services will bring the house down.)
In fact, the use of music in this film goes beyond just introducing the characters; it serves as wildly divergent expressions of who they truly are. Bruce essentially is a Hank Williams song externalized, while Norton’s boyish innocence is buoyed perfectly by Mark Mothersbaugh’s ’Khaki Scout Drum Compositions’ (marking his return to working with Anderson, though not on full scoring duties.) But Wes’ main musical motif here is a Benjamin Britten record, which Suzy’s brothers play over the opening credits. Bringing the instruments into an orchestra one-by-one, constantly placing their combative sounds over each other until it evolves into a beautiful harmony doubles what Wes is doing: he introduces us to our characters, separated by frames, in the opening credits and slowly-but-surely brings them together until they are an inseparable unit; reliant on each other on emotional levels that they previously didn’t know existed.
This is to say nothing of the way Wes moves forward as a director here from his previous work: not only does this have the intricate visual design of "Darjeeling Limited," the singular boyish innocence of "Rushmore" and "Bottle Rocket," the Wellesian scope of "Royal Tenenbaums," and the hand-made qualities of "Life Aquatic" and "Fantastic Fox" (Wes uses miniatures and a number of low-fi sight gags here showing his divergence into animation that paid dividends,) but it also features a number of risks he hasn’t taken before. He shoots in 16mm for a grainy look not unbecoming of the French New Wave films that inspired him (and that were released when the film is set,) he edits at a faster clip than we’ve seen from him before, and he employs luscious earthy colors over the primary coloring-book style we’ve seen previously (in addition to "Pierrot Le Fou," Sam and Suzy’s tryst recalls the trek through the jungle in Godard’s "Weekend" more than anything else.)
I truly cannot recommend "Moonrise Kingdom" enough. It’s not just a culmination of everything that makes Wes Anderson great, but it’s a beautiful fable about our need for connection, an uproarious comedy with seminal performances from some of our funniest actors, a heart-wrenching tale of the pain of adulthood, and a life-affirming look at the unbridled passion and energy that comes with first love. In short, it’s simply a masterpiece.