It's 1965, the rainy end of summer on the rocky coast of a fictional New England isle. Twelve-year-old Sam (Jared Gilman), a scrawny, bespectacled outcast with an unusual aptitude for cartography, disappears from the Khaki Scout camp, absconding with a couple of bedrolls and an air rifle and leaving behind a "resignation" letter for scoutmaster Randy Ward (Edward Norton) to find. Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) — a just-pubescent bad seed straddling the line between innocence and sexual precocity in a minidress paired with knee socks and "Sunday-school shoes" — disappears from her own dollhouse-like home, her self-absorbed, distracted lawyer parents Laura (Frances McDormand) and Walt (Bill Murray) initially none the wiser. Soon, the law of the island, Capt. Sharp (Bruce Willis), knocks on Laura and Walt's door while making the rounds in search of Sam, and Laura finds a box of "intimate" correspondence between the two kids — who met once, the summer before — suggesting they have run away together. Aided by what remains of Ward's troop ("It's a chance to do some first-class scouting!"), the grownups mobilize to find the fugitive young lovers and bring them back to safety — thereby wrecking Sam and Suzy's thrilling, romantic idyll.
Shot on Super 16mm, the visible grain giving each image a wonderfully tactile depth and life, director Wes Anderson leaves his usual stylistic fingerprints — horizontal pans across the just-so tableau; the casting of Murray and Jason Schwartzman as a kind of know-it-all fixer; the hermetic world defined by its highly specific, often too-perfect design. But it's also his most fully realized work: The tics that have sometimes distanced viewers from real emotions in his previous films are here much more integrated into the fabric of the film's period construction and its story.
Within Anderson's filmography, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou might be the most direct precursor to Moonrise, in that both are essentially adventures — elaborate, larger-than-life movie-movies — and both are punctured by violence. The escape Sam engineers for the pair, making full use of his Khaki Scout survivalist training, is dangerous and crazy, but it's also a way for the boy — an orphan who is on the verge of being dumped by his foster family — to exercise control and to show off his underappreciated talents to a receptive audience. Suzy doesn't have it so bad at home, but she's beautiful, angry for no specific reason, and bored, so Sam's flattering gaze gives her something she isn't getting, probably didn't know she needed, and now won't easily be able to live without.
Rated PG-13, Moonrise Kingdom takes the form of old-fashioned preteen literature but, as everything made by Wes Anderson, does so knowingly. Set against a devastating storm, the outcome of the film's gorgeously CGI-enhanced climactic adventure emphasizes both the ephemerality of preteen feelings and the ways in which our inability to go back and relive a cherished moment fossilizes it in memory. Its portrait of young love is both mature and defiantly utopian.
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Suzy and Sam's steadfast romanticism is a form of resistance that is thrown into relief by the quiet despair of the adults in their lives. Lonely, even — or particularly — when not alone, the parents and authority figures in Moonrise have long ago given up on the possibility of transformative romance or love as salvation. Their melancholy situates Moonrise's fantasy in reality — which only makes the film's swooning re-creation of Sam and Suzy's foolish, first-time, future-blind leaps into the unknown all the more exhilarating.