It’s rare that a film can so perfectly capture a moment in one’s lifetime, but that’s precisely what Moonrise Kingdom does. Its two leads are unknown child actors, and they play characters who both run away together in an attempt to live together in the wilderness forever. Their age is 12, and there’s an innocence they possess that is often unseen. The story involving them is beautiful. It’s just too bad that other things, like nasty adults, have to get in the way of their love.
The first of the children is Sam (Jared Gilman), an orphaned boy scout who is disliked by the rest of his troop. A year earlier he sneaked into the girls’ changing room at a school play, and met the other lead, Suzy (Kara Hayward), who was a raven. She’s a “troubled child,” who might be depressed and definitely has anger issues. She carries binoculars with her everywhere. The two became pen pals and decided to run away together. They are in love. It’s very sweet. The innocent abandon with which they live their lives makes it this way.
Of course, their disappearances have impacts on the lives of those around them. Led by Edward Norton as Scout Master Randy Ward, the boy scouts get the chance to put the skills they’ve learned at camp to good use as they search for Sam. On the other side, Suzy’s parents, Walt and Laura (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) team up with the Police Captain (Bruce Willis) to hunt for the young girl. Oh, and the Captain is having an off-screen affair with Laura, which is mentioned only in dialogue.
About half of Moonrise Kingdom is dedicated to following the two children on their adventure. It’s the summer of 1965, and anything is possible, or so they think. The film is like a pleasant dream, or perhaps a bedtime story. It doesn’t force its ideas upon you, but it presents something with which you can connect and relate, and it will likely put a smile on your face. That it so perfectly captures a moment in a person’s life in addition to being such a pleasant watch makes it something definitely worth watching.
Moonrise Kingdom is a Wes Anderson film, so you pretty much know what you can expect from it. There’s a genuine appreciation of the subject matter, a complete lack of cynicism, a shooting and editing style that isn’t like most films out there, characters who have more quirks than extremities, funny but sharp dialogue, and a bright, warm color palette. That last point is especially true here, as the sepia filter was used a lot in this movie, which plays in direct contrast with the dark blues and greens of many films nowadays.
Where Moonrise Kingdom starts to falter is when it begins to focus heavily on the adults of the picture. They’re much more boring than the children, and there’s nothing about them that we haven’t seen before. And because they act far more like children than those actually younger than them — a fact mentioned in the movie — they come across as kind of pathetic, really. Sure, it’s funny, but this is a film that works best when its main objective is to show these children attempting to be together.
It’s hard to picture a film like this one being made. It’s difficult to picture the production, especially when the scenes that work the best are the ones featuring inexperienced children, who had never previously acted in a motion picture. It takes a real talent behind the camera to make this sort of film work, and that’s exactly what we have in Wes Anderson. He’s put together a good, if not great, film, and it’s something that does what many others are unable to do. Even though it’s not a success for its entirety, it’s worth seeing because the scenes it gets right, it gets perfectly.
Most of Wes Anderson’s films are more intellectually challenging than most comedies out there. They’re offbeat, sure, but they’re also witty and smart. Moonrise Kingdom isn’t made with the brain but with the heart. It’s a love letter to childhood, and a period in time when anything can happen, even if it really can’t. Even the characters seem aware that this is the last point in their lives when they’ll be able to do something like this. It’s a fleeting period, and it’s kind of sad.
So much hinges on the performance of the two children, who were 12 years of age at the time of filming. There’s no forcefulness to their performances; it all feels natural, even with all of the silly and juvenile things they must do. Their love feels real and that’s what matters the most. While there are many known names in the adult performances, they’re far less important and don’t stand out as a result. This is a film all about the kids.
Moonrise Kingdom doesn’t work for the entirety of its running time, but you know what? It doesn’t matter. When it focuses on its two leading children, it’s pretty much a perfect movie. It captures a moment in childhood so well that you can only imagine how its director, Wes Anderson, managed to get into that mindset. At times, it feels like it could be a documentary. However, like what happens to the kids in the film, the adults ruin the fun. I wish we didn’t need them in a movie like this.