A young boy crosses a river in a canoe. He’s wearing a Khaki Scouts uniform. Having reached the riverbank, he tethers the canoe to a tree and hides it under some foliage. Then he walks across a field as a pair of binoculars spy on him. The binoculars come down, and we see a young girl. It appears she’s waiting for him. The scene flashes back to their first meeting in a church about a year ago when the girl was acting in a play about Noah’s Ark, and the boy was in the audience.
The boy idly wanders into the dressing rooms and comes upon a bunch of girls dressed as birds and getting ready to go on stage. The girls all stare at the interloper, but he only has eyes for the one in the middle. “What kind of bird are you?” One of the girls volunteers, “I’m a sparrow, she’s a dove—” “No,” the boy says, “What kind of bird are you?” pointing to the girl he’s staring at.
The girl, who is dressed in black, speaks softly, “I’m a raven.” “What happened to your hand?” the boy asks, staring at her bandaged hand. “I lost my temper with myself and punched the mirror and broke it,” the girl says. The boy nods, never taking his eyes off the girl, and an instant connection passes between them—we flashback to the present. The girl and boys lock eyes and, after a moment of tense silence, nervously smile.
This is an early scene from Moonrise Kingdom, one of Wes Anderson’s most beautiful works, a film that combines precise imagery and evocative sound with a deeply touching coming-of-age story of two troubled and misunderstood children.
Anderson has often been called the poster child for ‘style over substance.’ His characters are often one-note, and his heavy emphasis on cinematography at the expense of story and nuance causes his works to often feel somewhat lifeless, like glass sculptures – beautiful to look at, but not good for much else. By and large, I agree with this assessment. Both The Royal Tenenbaums and The Grand Budapest Hotel left me cold, even though both films have numerous fans, and the latter did exceedingly well at the box office.
So, in 2012, when a new Anderson film was announced, I was not very enthusiastic. However, the reviews were good, and I had read that this was a coming-of-age story, a genre I’ve always found fascinating. I booked a ticket and walked into the cinema hall with a healthy amount of scepticism. I walked out an hour-and-a-half later, transformed.
Moonrise Kingdom is set in 1965 in New England, USA. Anderson claimed that the year had been randomly chosen, but it is likely that several factors unconsciously influenced his decision. 1965 is often considered the beginning of the end of the age of innocence in America, a time when the 1960s permanently and irreversibly stepped out of the shadow of the 1950s and came into its own in the backdrop of violence and bloodshed.
Malcolm X had just died even as the country was recovering from the brutal assassination of John F Kennedy two years ago. The Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement were both intensifying. America was like an adolescent quickly being pushed towards adulthood while surrounded by hostile forces without and by confusion, uncertainty, and fear within – not unlike Sam and Suzy, the protagonists of Moonrise Kingdom.
Another advantage of setting the film in the 1960s is that this allows Anderson to showcase the prevalent technology of the time. Mobile phones, GPS, and computers give way to walkie-talkies, paper maps, and ham radio. The overall feeling is one of timeliness and timelessness, and this combined with 1960s fashion, and Anderson’s signature bright colours elevate Moonrise Kingdom into an instant classic.
It is difficult to pinpoint one particular reason why Moonrise Kingdom is so appealing. It can be argued that it’s a coming-of-age story. Notably, Sam and Suzy’s (Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward, in fantastic performances that straddle the line between childish innocence and adolescent, almost adult intensity) decision to run away, strikes right at the heart of the fantasy every person has nurtured at one time or another – the desire to leave our problems behind and run away to a secret place where there is no school, no homework, no bullies or bullying parents.
We can play and eat candies and enjoy ourselves to our heart’s content. This fantasy is so potent that it birthed one of literature’s most famous characters: Peter Pan.
However, there are no fairies or over-the-top villains with hook hands in Moonrise Kingdom. Instead, the troubles that Sam and Suzy face are authentic and very relatable. Sam is a foster child who is constantly bullied by the other foster children. His frustration and helplessness manifest in acts like sleepwalking and wetting his bed.
Meanwhile, Suzy’s parents’ loveless marriage takes a massive toll on her mental health, and she starts getting into fights in school. She later finds out that her mother is having an affair, and it is implied that this is what prompts her decision to run away.
Both children’s cases are indicative of the way mental health was perceived in the 1960s. Suzy loves reading and likes to escape into fantasy worlds through her books. She especially loves novels starring ‘girl heroes.’ Sam is an expert camper and cartographer, as well as an amateur artist.
However, both children are stifled from achieving their full potential by the society they live in. Suzy shows Sam the book she found her mother reading, Coping with a distraught child. The title is a shocking indictment of the attitudes towards gifted children at the time. Instead of receiving counselling, Suzy is considered ‘troubled’ and yelled at and physically abused by her mother.
Meanwhile, Sam is bullied relentlessly for not having parents and for his social awkwardness. After he runs away, his foster parents inform the police that they’re kicking him out and that ‘Social Services will decide what to do with him.’
The conversation between Captain Sharp, who’s leading the search-and-rescue-operation, and Social Services tells you everything you need to know about the fate that awaited boys like Sam in this era. Remember that phrases like ‘shock therapy’ and ‘juvenile refuge’ may shock us now, but they were considered commonplace in the 1960s.
The adults in the film are also all variously constrained by the social norms and expectations of the time. Scoutmaster Ward (Edward Norton, displaying deep sensitivity and vulnerability) is a maths teacher who struggles to reconcile academia with his love for being a camp mentor. He constantly berates himself for losing Sam and is crushed when his commander (played by everyone’s favourite curmudgeon, Harvey Keitel) accuses him of negligence and strips him of his rank.
Meanwhile, Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis, completely and believably removed from his action man avatar), a sad, lonely, and broken man, wrestles with his guilt at having an affair with Mrs Bishop, Suzy’s mother (Frances McDormand, making the most of a small but meaty role), and his fear that the affair was what made Suzy run away. There are too many good scenes with these characters to list here, but two of them stand out for their subtext and thematic richness.
In the second half of the film, after the children have been caught, Sharp and Sam have a frank discussion about life, love, and regret. After Sam tells Sharp that he and Suzy were willing to face the dangers of running away because they were desperate and in love, Sharp – unaware that he’s patronising – says, “Even smart kids make dumb mistakes sometimes. It’s our job to keep you from making the dangerous ones if we can.’
Sam ponders this for a moment and asks, “Were you ever in love?” Sharp, taken aback, hesitantly answers, “Yes, once, a long time ago.” “What happened?” Sam whispers. Sharp stares at him, shoulders drooping and all his previous assurance gone. “She didn’t love me back,” he says softly. Sam sees his future in Sharp at that moment and this one of the reasons he decides to run away again.
In another scene, Mrs Bishop and Mr Bishop (played to weary perfection by Bill Murray) are lying awake at night worrying about Suzy. We see that they both use separate beds and probably have been doing so for a while.
Both are lawyers, and they discuss legal matters for a few minutes before Mrs Bishop suddenly says, “I’m sorry, Walt.” “It’s not your fault,” Mr Bishop promptly responds, the automatic reply indicating that they’ve had this conversation many times before.
But then, Mr Bishop looks at the ceiling and murmurs, “I hope the roof flies off, and I get sucked up into space. You’ll be better off without me.” “We’re all they’ve got, Walt,” Mrs Bishop says wearily.
Mr Bishop finally turns and looks her full in the face. “It’s not enough,” he responds. In just a few words and looks, this scene tells the whole story of the Bishops’ marriage – the courtroom romance, the initial happy years of married life, the fights, the affairs, and finally, the despair and helplessness and desire for release through death.
Fortunately, Anderson is not a fatalistic artist, and things work out for everyone in the end – but not before a biblical flood like the one in Suzy’s play at the beginning of the film wipes out almost the entire island where the characters live. Having run away a second time, Sam and Suzy take refuge in the church, the place where they first met, bringing the full story into a circle.
The entire climax has the ring of a biblical story, with the gods unleashing the apocalypse as retaliation for the adult world’s treatment of Sam and Suzy. The two climb to the topmost spire of the church and prepare to jump and commit suicide but are saved at the last minute by Sharp.
Sharp then adopts Sam, and Suzy’s parents decide to work on their differences and reconcile. The narrator reports that the crop harvest next year was the most bountiful the island had ever seen, seemingly confirming the implication that the flood was biblical and that the gods had rewarded the island for letting Sam and Suzy be together. The film ends the way it began, with Suzy watching Sam through her binoculars as he walks away after one of their regular rendezvous.
There is a great deal of ground I haven’t covered, such as the film’s haunting and beautiful soundtrack and its colourful visuals. Almost every music choice and every costume and the set-piece have some thematic relevance to the characters and their situations, but those are for the viewer to parse. Ultimately, however, I don’t think Anderson intended this film to be analyzed down to the last second.
Moonrise Kingdom is a film meant to be experienced; it is a celebration of a time in our lives when we thought we were invincible when the future seemed far away and inconsequential when it seemed like anything was possible. That time couldn’t last. We all grow up some time; we all inevitably go from being a Sam or a Suzy to being a Captain Sharp or a Scoutmaster Ward or a Mrs Bishop. But that brief period of infinity possibility is worth cherishing, and Moonrise Kingdom does so gloriously.