When 12-year-old Sam runs away from his New England summer camp in Moonrise Kingdom, a poster covers the escape hatch he’s carved out in his tent. He doesn’t tell anybody, but leaves behind a letter of resignation to his scoutmaster. His family is immediately notified of Sam’s disappearance. His father, after some thought, replies that they “can’t invite him back.”
Actually, it’s Sam’s foster father, which isn’t nearly as funny as a real dad saying it. But it still elicits a smile. For this is 1965 upper-crust America, and this is a Wes Anderson film. It’s gonna be quaint. It’s gonna be wry. It’s gonna look just like Anderson’s other features, like Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, and Fantastic Mr. Fox. But is that such a bad thing?
The one inarguable positive is that Moonrise Kingdom is not like Anderson’s last two live-action films, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou and The Darjeeling Limited—which is to say, it’s actually diverting, a mostly winning creation from a cultishly beloved auteur. It centers on two chastely-in-love preteens running away together. More than anything, the most elevated descriptor that comes to mind is “cute.”
Sam (Jared Gilman) meets Suzy (Kara Hayward) a year before their sojourn takes place, when he wanders off, bored, during a play and ends up backstage, where Suzy is sitting in a raven’s costume awaiting her cue. It’s love at first sight, though Sam is a nerdy little guy with thick black glasses and Suzy is a young beauty with blue eyes and a thousand-yard stare. They become pen pals and plan and execute their escape perfectly—though Sam seems a little disconcerted that Suzy brought her cat. Sam is an able scout, providing food and shelter as they rough it in the wood. To relax, Sam smokes a pipe (!), and they read books and talk, always flatly, about their dreams. Deadpan, apparently, is the new precocious.
The rest of Moonrise Kingdom involves the hunt for the young lovers. Although Sam’s foster family has given up on him, Suzy’s parents Laura and Walt (Frances McDormand and Bill Murray) actively pursue their “troubled” girl, even if it takes a while for them to notice she’s gone. “Does it concern you that your daughter just ran away from home?” Laura asks Walt—via bullhorn. There’s a beat. “That’s a loaded question,” Walt responds.
Do you have any idea what Walt means by that? I don’t, but it’s still amusing. And that’s the trick Anderson and co-writer Roman Coppola, son of Francis, pull off once again: Fashioning a world in which not much suggests the real one, in which the sight gags are precious (that pipe!), in which dialogue is elliptical (when a dog is accidentally killed and Suzy asks, “Was he a good dog?” Sam flatly responds, “Who’s to say?”). Late in the film, when a grown-up actually considers marrying the tweens, he tells them it’s a serious decision they should discuss by the trampoline. Cue long shot of the pair talking things over while another kid bounces up and down. Har har.
Moonrise Kingdom may focus on the newcomer actors (who are as surprisingly transfixing as Anderson’s vivid palette of pinks, greens, yellows, and browns). But the supporting cast offers a boatload of stars, including Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, Tilda Swinton, Harvey Keitel, Jason Schwartzman, and Bob Balaban—who sometimes serves as narrator, dressed in green and red elfin-wear as he addresses to the camera directly, as if he’s making some sort of documentary. It’s weird for the sake of weird.
Back to cute for the sake of cute: Love is Anderson’s concern here, predominantly via the romance of Sam and Suzy, who refuse to stay apart even when they’re caught. Parallel to that is Laura’s affair with the local police captain (Willis) while she and Walt sleep in separate beds, I Love Lucy-style. Perhaps Anderson is suggesting Laura has no right to keep Suzy from her beloved when Laura can’t stay away from hers. Or perhaps it’s just to give Willis something to do. Alas, the other A-listers aren’t awarded as much meat, which means that, like Rushmore, this is chiefly a story about kids—appropriate for a filmmaker whose defining characteristics remain so stubbornly, rewardingly childlike.