I liked this film so much I've already seen it twice. Moonrise Kingdom is so good, in fact, I almost couldn't bring myself to write about it for fear of not doing it justice.
And yet, since I first took my 11-year-old nephew, Ethan, to see it last month, I've been talking about Moonrise Kingdom nonstop, encouraging everyone I know to go see it. It has captured my imagination completely, an absolute tour de force — wholly original and an "instant classic," as I heard one film critic utter tell a companion on his way out of the theater.
Perhaps Ethan, a mythology buff who's never met a fantasy film he didn't like, put it most eloquently when he said (surprising no one more than himself), "That was the best film I've ever seen."
Moonrise Kingdom is director Wes Anderson's seventh feature-length film to date. In an iconoclastic cinematic oeuvre unrivaled among filmmakers of his generation, Anderson's latest stands above the rest of his stellar films — Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Royal Tennenbaums, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Fantastic Mr. Fox and Darjeeling Limited — as an eloquent, funny, enduringly poignant homage to childhood and, moreover, to innocence.
In a word, the film is perfect. I wouldn't change a thing.
Set on the fictitious New England island of New Penzance during the summer of 1965, Moonrise Kingdom tells the love story of 12-year-olds Sam Shakusky (the achingly captivating Jared Gilman) and Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward). Suzy lives on the island with her unhappily married attorney parents, Walt (Bill Murray) and Laura (Frances McDormand), and three younger brothers in fantastically rambling house called Summer's End. Sam is on the island attending Camp Ivanhoe, a "Khaki Scout" summer camp, in preparation for a scouting jamboree on a neighboring island.
Sam and Suzy are natural-born outliers — an orphan with a flare for the eccentric and a "troubled teen" with anger issues, respectively. A chance encounter (if you believe in such things) the summer before at a performance of Noye's Fludde (composer Benjamin Britten's operatic retelling of the biblical Noah's Ark story) at the Church of St. Jack, in which Suzy played a raven, irrevocably links the kids' hearts and stories. They become secret pen pals and devise an elaborate plan to run away together.
The film opens at Camp Ivanhoe the morning Scout Master Ward (the wonderful Edward Norton) discovers that Sam is missing. An accomplished scout with impressive survival skills, Sam is deeply disliked by his fellow scouts who believe him to be an emotionally unstable weirdo who may or may not be dangerous. Ward dispatches a handful of his scouts — the nerdiest search party imaginable — to track Sam and return him safely to Ivanhoe.
Enter the town policeman, Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), who along with Ward contact Social Services (a character whose name we never learn as she's known only by her professional designation "Social Services," played by the inimitable Tilda Swinton) about Sam's disappearance. It's at this point that we all (the audience and the other characters) learn that Sam is an orphan whose foster family doesn't want him back. The boy is completely alone in the world. Except that he isn't ...
Suzy packs provisions — six of her favorite fantasy novels, her kitten (secreted in a fishing creel), a pallet of cat food, her brother's portable record player, and her ever-present binoculars — and sneaks off to rendezvous with Sam in a field. Together they set out to make their escape, orienteering they way across the island to set up camp in a remote cove.
During their brief stay alone in the cove, Sam and Suzy explore their newfound freedom and their burgeoning relationship.
It was at this point in the film that I found myself unexpectedly holding my breath. Sam and Suzy are dancing on the beach in their underwear — he in a white undershirt and baggy jockey shorts, she in a white training bra and enormous white granny panties. (Remember, the film in set in 1965, long before boxer briefs and "cheekies" panties were the sartorial norm for the junior-high set.) They share a chaste first kiss and then, after a short discussion about the mechanics thereof, an awkward French kiss. Suzy tells to the nervous, bespectacled Sam (who resembles a young Sean Lennon) that he can touch her chest if he so wishes. He places his hands over her training bra and she says, "I think they'll grow."
Oh no! I thought. No no no no. Panic set in as I imagined where this scene might be going. I wasn't alone in my fear, if the palpable tension among the other moviegoers in the theater was any indication. I believe we expected to see (cringingly) the young characters overtly sexualized, to take their physical exploration to a more adult level in order to shock, and perhaps titillate, us.
But they don't. Their innocence is preserved. And that bespeaks Anderson's genius.
The director allows the young actors to be children. Innocents. It's completely believable, refreshingly so. Earlier in the same scene, Sam warns Suzy that he might wet the bed in the night, telling her that he wouldn't want her to be offended. She tenderly says she wouldn't be offended. It's such an incredibly sweet, true and kind exchange — so wholeheartedly innocent — it brought a tear to my eye. They are children standing in the threshold of adolescence, inhabiting that liminal space full of anxiety and expectation. But in that moment, and many others in the film, they still very much are children.
The scene that follows, in which Suzy's family, the scout master and Captain Sharp discover them asleep in their pup tent the next morning, mirrors the audience's relief (and surprise). Enraged, Walt (Suzy's father) lunges at the tent, tears it from the ground and holds it above his head, glowering at the startled, sleepy kids inside. He's expecting to see something that he doesn't. He tosses the tent aside and walks away, while his wife grabs Suzy by the arm and pulls her away from Sam toward an awaiting boat.
As I think about my reaction to the kissing scene, I am reminded of a conversation I had a few years ago with Danny Boyle, the Oscar-winning director of Slumdog Millionaire, when his film Millions was released. That film, which quickly became one of my favorites, stars two boys making their first appearances on film. Boyle talked at length about the awesome responsibility directing children is (or at least should be) for a director.
You don't want to over-coach them. You want to protect them. You want to allow them to be innocent, especially in scenes that have even a whiff of sexuality to them.
Boyle pulls it off beautifully in Millions and Anderson does so masterfully in Moonrise Kingdom, which is both Gilman and Hayward's first film. Anderson conveys a brilliant commentary on society, cultural mores and our perception of children more articulately in what doesn't happen in that scene on the beach than what does.
Anderson would not have been able to accomplish this rare feat of filmmaking had he not treated the young characters with so much respect. He takes Sam and Suzy seriously, never dismissing their feelings of estrangement from the rest of the world, nor minimizing their love for each other.
Later, in a scene aboard Captain Sharp's houseboat over a wieners-and-beer Last Supper of sorts, Sam talks about his connection to Suzy. When they met at the church play, something happened. They didn't' mean for it to happen, but it did. A spark. An instant connection. Love at first sight. Soul recognizing soul.
Has he ever loved anyone like that, Sam asks Captain Sharp.
"Yes," the melancholy cop answers.
"What happened?" Sam says.
She loved someone else, the older outlier replies.
"I'm sorry," Sam says.
The second time I went to see Moonrise Kingdom, I brought my 12-year-old son Vasco with me. It's the summer before his seventh-grade year and I've started to hear the hoof beats of adolescent romance approaching. I wanted him to see the film for many reasons, including the opportunity it might present for a conversation about girls (a subject he's reluctant to discuss with his mother.)
While that opportunity didn't present itself, we did have several conversations about the film and why my son enjoyed it as much as he did. There was adventure ("Sam was really good at camping," he said), and it was funny (like when the other scouts built a tree house up super high in a tree or when a shirtless Walt announces that he's going to go out and chop down a tree.) Sam was kind (like when he rushes back to shore mid-escape to retrieve Suzy's binoculars because they're her "magical power") and the kids in the film eventually act heroically (rescuing Sam and Suzy from captivity so they can be together.)
"Do you think they got married some day," Vasco asked as we drove home from the film.
"Maybe," I said. "Sometimes people meet the person they will marry when they're really young. It's unusual, but it does happen every once in a while. I have friends who met when they were 13 and they've been married for more than 20 years now."
He thought for a few moments.
"Will there be a Moonrise Kingdom II?" asked the boy who assumes every film will have a sequel a la Iron Man.
"Probably not," I answered, "but it's kind of fun to imagine what happens to them anyway, don't you think?"
"Uh-huh ... Hey Mom?"
"I really like spending time with you," my son said.
"I really like spending time with you, too," I told him, trying hard to hold back my tears of gratitude for his tender heart, his innocence.
Thank you, Wes.
Cathleen Falsani is Web Editor and Director of New Media for Sojourners. She is the author of several critically-acclaimed, non-fiction books, The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People Sin Boldly: A Field Guide for Grace, The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers, and her latest — BELIEBER!: Fame, Faith and the Heart of Justin Bieber. Cathleen lives in southern California with her husband, Maurice Possley, and their 12-year-old son, Vasco.