This summer is seeing the release of new films, both in very typical respective form, by the two contemporary directors best known for their distinctive production designs: Tim Burton and Wes Anderson. Burton is the more mature of the two in years, but like many of his characters, Anderson has always been poised beyond his age. As he demonstrates once again in Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson has the focus and patience to let his quiet, eccentric vision lead from first frame to last; Burton, in contrast, allows Dark Shadows to be yet another film that collapses into incoherent excess as it reaches its unnecessarily action-packed climax.
Moonrise Kingdom is Anderson at his most relaxed and assured. A gentle and often heartbreakingly beautiful tribute to the long tradition of stories about children longing for escape, the film has Anderson wearing his trademark stagey style with such confidence that it distracts not a whit from his resonant themes.
If it helps that we’re increasingly familiar with Anderson’s design-fetish style, it also helps that the world has been rapidly Andersonizing in the 20 years since the director first stepped behind the lens. It’s appropriate that stills from Moonrise Kingdom have been widely shared on image-centric social networks like Pinterest and Tumblr: much of the film is embued with a warm brownish-red glow that any Instagram user will recognize as a cousin of that app’s popular “Kelvin” filter. Anderson is the perfect man for an age in which the details of domestic life are pristinely photographed, cherished, and shared with the world.
With his customary gift for finding iconic style in unlikely places, Anderson joins the Boy Scouts (er, the “Khaki Scouts”) circa the mid-1960s. A small troop led by Scout Master Randy Ward (Edward Norton) occupies the tip of an island off the coast of New England (the movie was filmed on location in Rhode Island), an island policed by Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis). At the other end of the island are Walt and Laura Bishop (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand), whose 12-year-old daughter Suzy (Kara Hayward, in a performance to cherish) leads a restless life that suggests she’d be a soulmate to Margot Tenenbaum. She finds a male soulmate, however, in runaway scout Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman, in a performance to cherish even more). The two decide to run away together, a plan that’s complicated by the fact that they’re on an island.
Tavi Gevinson, teen queen of online style, has already endorsed Moonrise Kingdom: “I wish I’d never complimented anything so I could really mean it when I talk about how beautiful this movie was.” Indeed, in Moonrise Kingdom Anderson demonstrates that a film can tell a compelling story by leading with its style, much like Sting showed you could lead a driving rock arrangement with the bass instead of the guitar. Anderson’s characters cling to their possessions—Suzy’s record player, Sam’s raccoon cap, Scout Master Ward’s pocketknife—because their possessions represent their aspirations to be the people they may or may not be able to become in real life.
Suzy carries a suitcase of fictional works of young adult fiction (got that?) inspired by the books Anderson—and you, clever reader—grew up with. Moonrise Kingdom is an immensely affectionate paean to those stories and the children who read them, and it’s Anderson’s most complex and poignant mapping of one of his great themes: the illusion of aging.
The collision of generations happens here as it has in previous Anderson films—The New Yorker‘s Anthony Lane has noted the way that a mano-a-mano scene between Willis and Gilman echos Gene Hackman hanging off the back of a garbage truck with his grandsons in The Royal Tenenbaums—but what makes it especially haunting here is the precise attention paid to the child characters. We learn of the young lovers’ dreams of escape and adventure, dreams that are destined to be frustrated—and then Bill Murray saunters through, glassy-eyed, carrying an ax and a bottle of wine. “I’m going to go find a tree to chop down,” he advises his children.
We’re all looking for our trees—no matter how happy our lives are, they can never live up to the infinite promise they seem to hold when we’re children. I’ve recently been going through the boxes of my own childhood possessions stored in my mother’s attic, and it’s astonishing to remember just how dearly I cherished my Gremlin-in-a-jar and my Snoopy pencil case. I clung fiercely to those Transformers, confident that someday I’d live in a grand mansion with rooms to display them all.
Sam refuses to part with his raccoon cap, because someday when he’s tracking buffalo on the Great Plains, he’ll need the warmth. Scout Master Ward cherishes his pocketknife, the symbol of his dominion over his small troop. Walt Bishop has that ax, and someday his wife might love him again and ask him to chop down a tree to build a house to hold their fragmenting family together. We’ll always have our dreams, and Wes Anderson has become one of those dreams’ most devoted caretakers in contemporary cinema. Moonrise Kingdom reminds us that we’re all young, and we always will be.