Originally appeared in BeatRoute Magazine.
Movie buffs can remember the mortared fields of battle when The Life Aquatic hit theatres. Generally enraptured after The Royal Tenenbaums, the critical community felt slighted at the new work, and deemed it a slight work. As if shaking themselves from a dream, half called Anderson a hack, and the other half defended him as rigorously. Those battle lines exist today, weakened by the triumph of The Darjeeling Limited, and bolstered again by the snark surrounding The Fantastic Mr. Fox.
With Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson’s latest, I feel like the naysayers will reach a Waterloo of sorts. An appropriately precious story about two disaffected youngsters on the edge of puberty fleeing their obligations to make physical their pen-pal relationship, the film is almost a spiritual prequel to The Royal Tenenbaums. Containing the same fetishes for precocious young women that inspire deep change in men and the trappings of a Rockwell ‘60s nuclear family ideal (that may have never existed at all), Moonrise might as well be the story of Margot Tenenbaum’s first love.
When Sam (Jared Gilman) runs away from summer camp on an Eastern Seaboard island, and Suzy (Kara Hayward) likewise jets from her suffocating family, it kicks off a game of cat and mouse between the pair and the authority figures in their lives who launch a manhunt. Sam’s scout master (Edward Norton), the local sheriff (Bruce Willis) and Suzy’s parents (Frances McDormand and Bill Murray) have subplots running through Moonrise Kingdom, but the main attraction is pure John Hughes territory. It’s Sixteen Candles through the Anderson lens, and it works beautifully.
Where Fantastic Mr. Fox was criticized for being dialing “Anderson-isms” up to 11 — the long pan shots, meticulous mise en scene, and deadpan dialogue — Moonrise again reveals those idiosyncrasies in Anderson’s style to be deeply effective. It is simply one of the most stunningly shot films in recent memory, with the dense, virgin, rainforest-like locale of Suzy and Sam’s outing serving up some of the best nature appreciation on film this side of David Attenborough. It’s a technical marvel, to be sure, but Anderson is at his best directing his most sincere love story to date.
Suzy and Sam’s romance is deeply rooted in the short prologue to The Darjeeling Limited, Hotel Chevalier. The short film visits a problematic Paris tryst between Jason Swartzman and Natalie Portman. The attention paid to short, pithy lines of dialogue pregnant with capital ‘M’ meaning is on full display in Moonrise Kingdom. The difference here is a lack of anger or cynicism, and a great deal more fumbling in the dark.
Suzy and Sam are the young love ideal — blind, sincere, and honest. Suzy hauls around a suitcase full of science-fiction and fantasy, her escapes from a life she detests. She expresses the desire to be an orphan, just like Sam, because it sounds more interesting, and all her heroines are orphans. “I love you,” Sam says to this, “but you don’t know what you’re talking about.” Their exploration of each other is as deeply male as it is deeply felt, and it never falls into the saccharine. It’s a balancing act Anderson navigates expertly.
Anderson is clearly in love with the idea of the early ‘60s, but his version of the age is the Mad Men version, the version that will likely send Sam to Vietnam and Suzy to Kent State. Nostalgia doesn’t cover or apologize for the problems and flaws in Moonrise Kingdom. Nothing is idyllic, save for Sam and Suzy, alone in the woods, constantly hunted. It’s a stirring, unapologetic tale of young love, and might prove to be Anderson’s crowning work.