Film Review: “Moonrise Kingdom”

by Jason LeRoy on June 1, 2012

Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman in MOONRISE KINGDOM

starring: Jared Gilman, Kara Hayward, Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Jason Schwartzman, Harvey Keitel, Bob Balaban

written by: Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola

directed by: Wes Anderson

MPAA: Rated PG-13 for sexual content and smoking

Wes Anderson takes a bit of a risk in Moonrise Kingdom, his latest stylishly sentimental exercise in storybook narrative. Managing as always his tricky high-wire tonal balancing act of deadpan detachment and heartfelt earnestness, Anderson has once again assembled an impressive cast of actors — but surprisingly, he’s relegated them to thinly-sketched roles in the background. Because this, his seventh feature film, is not the story of its adults. Rather, it is the story of Sam (Jared Gilman) and Susie (Kara Hayward), two young outsiders who meet on an island off the coast of New England in 1965.

Sam is a precocious orphan living in foster care whose officious manner suggests Manny on Modern Family; he is spending his summer at Khaki Scout camp (which sounds like a Banana Republic kids campaign) under the direction of Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton, in what could be considered the Wilson brother role). Susie is an angry young woman who lives with her frosty parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) and three younger brothers. She is the living embodiment of budding young hipster womanhood: decked out in cute mod minidresses and knee socks, wearing way too much eyeshadow, passing her time with sci-fi fantasy novels and Francoise Hardy records. Together, they’re like a cooler version of Christina Ricci and David Krumholtz in Addams Family Values.

After meeting by chance at a church pageant, Sam and Susie begin a written correspondence that eventually leads to a plan: they will run away together. The pair sneak off right under the noses of their less-than-watchful adult guardians and begin attempting to forage a new life in the island wilderness, hunting for food and discovering each other’s bodies (which it’s hard not to feel a little pervy watching, as if Chris Hansen is about to burst in at any moment and offer the entire theater sweet tea). Meanwhile, as the sad-sack grownups discover Sam and Susie’s absence, Scout Master Ward unleashes his Khaki Scout troupe to hunt them down, while Susie’s parents work with the mild-mannered island policeman (Bruce Willis) to locate them. Matters become even more complicated when Social Services (a delightfully imperious Tilda Swinton) learns of Sam’s disappearance.

Moonrise Kingdom is a romantic odyssey of youthful adventure, told in Anderson’s unmistakably meticulous visual aesthetic (yes, you will totally win at Wes Anderson Bingo). The 1965 setting allows him to fully indulge his decidedly retro leanings for costume design, art direction, and soundtrack. As the two young leads, Gilman and Hayward are remarkable and pitch-perfect; Hayward in particular suggests the luminous complexity of Scarlett Johansson in her teen years. The adults are somewhat one-note, although it is always a pleasure to see Norton and Willis playing softer characters. We also get to see Willis scrambling across a rainy nighttime rooftop for the first time since Death Becomes Her, so that’s a bonus.

The film has a somewhat clunky exposition, but soon settles into an agreeable pace and gradually transcends into a blissful delight. It is funny and exciting, with Anderson further ratcheting up the nostalgic fun with elements of intentionally low-budget action and horror. A lovely and sweet-natured film that rewards patience, Moonrise Kingdom is one of Anderson’s most imaginative and unabashedly romantic films.

Moonrise Kingdom opens in San Francisco today.

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