Wes Anderson movies are often described as ensemble pieces, but they’re actually more connective than that. Each of his films is really a portrait of a community.
Sometimes these communities take the form of friendships (Bottle Rocket) or family (The Royal Tenenbams). In Moonrise Kingdom, the focus is on a community as we usually think of one: a group of people learning to live together in a bordered space. Set in 1965, Moonrise takes place on New Penzance, an island off the coast of New England. The island serves as home to a scattering of year-long residents and is also the site of the summer camp for the Khaki Scouts of North America.
One of these scouts is Sam (Jared Gilman), an “emotionally disturbed” 12-year-old, as his foster parents describe him, who at the start of the film has fled his impeccably arranged tent. (Every item in it is placed just so, suggesting Anderson himself might live there.) Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton) arranges a search party of boys, all of whom dislike Sam, and they set off with a dog and an alarming number of weapons to track him down.
On the other side of the island lives the Bishop family: married attorneys Walt and Laura (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand), their three young boys and 12-year-old daughter Suzy (Kara Hayward). We learn that Suzy and Sam had met the summer before, have been exchanging letters since and are now carrying out a plan to run away together. Once Suzy goes missing, things get serious enough to call in the island’s police force, which consists of Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis, the most welcome addition among the new faces to Anderson’s ensemble).
For its first third, Moonrise Kingdom is a touching ode to that sweet and terrifying moment when childhood friendship blossoms into romance. Gilman and Hayward – both making their screen debuts – have a real feel for Anderson’s specific form of studied archness. The result is a courtship both innocent and precocious. As they’re hiking, Sam throws out scouting tips as if they were precious valentines. As they drift off to sleep, Suzy reads aloud from the fantasy novels she’s stolen from the library. He in his coonskin cap; she in her aquamarine eye shadow: they’re endearingly childish, but they also carry the particularly adult, existential exhaustion that marks almost all Anderson’s protagonists. “Was he a good dog?” Suzy asks after the death of a pet. “Who’s to say?” Sam responds.
As delightful as this adolescent romantic adventure is, it’s not the central focus of Moonrise Kingdom. Sam and Suzy’s elopement functions, rather, as the catalyst for the inhabitants of New Penzance to reconsider their place in relation to each other – in community. McDormand’s Laura, who has been dallying with Captain Sharp, comes to realize her crumbling family must take precedence over her own desires. Scout Master Ward, a teacher during the school year, tells his boys in a moment of self awareness that he thinks of scout leadership as his true calling (and he gets a heroic opportunity to prove it). Whether or not Sam and Suzy will also find their proper places – especially Sam, who as an orphan is New Penzance’s most extreme outsider – becomes the movie’s climactic question.
That climax is a doozy, as the adults close in on Sam and Suzy during a torrential rainstorm. Up to this point, Anderson’s use of Super 16mm has given the movie the scratchy, faded skin of films from the 1960s, but here Moonrise becomes a study in deep blues and dark silhouettes. For a moment, the picture has the expressive magic of a colorized silent movie; it’s a dramatic switch for a sequence in which the direction of so many of the characters’ lives hangs in the balance.
Will Moonrise Kingdom win over the Anderson skeptics, the ones who find his precisely arranged frames to be little more than fussy curio cabinets? I don’t know, and don’t really care. As familiar as each of his films can be, I also find the repetition of certain motifs and techniques revealing, something like echoes that become clearer each time they reverberate.
During Moonrise, for instance, I was struck by the importance of Anderson characters so often being in uniform, both official (Zissou’s team gear) and otherwise (the matching track suits of the Tenenbaum boys). The scouts’ khakis, the costumes worn by the kids in a church production of Noah’s Ark, the uniform Sam eventually dons – in Moonrise Kingdom, these are all marks of community, reminders to their wearers that even when that inevitable melancholia strikes, they still belong.