Moonrise Kingdom

So we take a break from the usual summer action/adventure/scifi/superhero fare to examine the latest bit of postmodern snark from Wes Anderson.  In the past Anderson has made darkly comic films showing the least flattering side of human nature.  His characters tend to be self-absorbed and ultimately ineffectual which makes it hard to really root for them.  His plots are convoluted and often don’t build to a climax.
So who else would you want directing Moonrise Kingdom, a tender story about first love?
At first thought just about anybody:  Tarantino, Michael Bay, David Cronenberg, Uwe Boll for crying out loud.  Watching zombies eat their brains sounds better than watching them work through their ennui, especially if you don’t like them.  The film does has a good cast, however, and it has been getting more than the usual amount of positive buzz.  

Sam, played by Jared Gilman in his first role, falls for Suzy, played by Kara Hayward likewise in her first role.  The setting is a small island off the New England coast in 1965.  Both of these kids are damaged.  Sam is smart but socially awkward.  Other kids, even the ones in his scout troop don’t like him.  He’s an orphan and has been moved in and out of foster homes because nobody can seem to get to him.  Suzy is a depressive who thirty years later would have been a goth.  She mopes about her parents’ brightly colored house all day and is prone to violent outbursts.  The young couple decides to run away, which upsets the small community.

The two newcomers do a pretty good job playing youngsters who are almost completely detached from their emotions.  They are two kids desperately trying to connect.  They were lucky to get such roles for leads on their first time out.  Awkward line readings and controlled emotionally neutral expressions are what the characters call for.  Yet under his façade you can see Sam’s puzzlement at other people’s reaction to him and Suzy’s longing to escape the mundane reality of her home life through the juvenile fantasy books she steals from the library.  But I didn’t quite feel sympathy for them; there was too much awkwardness in the way.

The professionals all turn in the mannered and quirky performances typical of a Wes Anderson film.  Ed Norton plays Scout Master Ward, a man who runs his scout camp like a military base, giving inspections and handing out demerits.  Yet Norton effectively conveys that this is not just a power trip for the character.  He genuinely cares for the boys, especially Sam.  Likewise Bruce Willis plays the island’s policeman as a man who enjoys the prestige his position gives him but he is also painfully aware of his shortcomings.  Willis does a good job at showing his dismay when Sam’s foster father tells him over the phone that Sam won’t be welcome back home.  Like Norton Willis shows a compassionate side rarely seen in a Wes Anderson film.

Anderson’s directing style is unique.  Obviously he gets the eccentric performances out of his actors that he wants.  He favors long flat establishing shots that really call attention to themselves.  But also the script, which he had a hand in writing with Roman Coppola, is a large part of his vision for the project.  It is a story told in a style of heightened realism.  Things happen that aren’t realistic and people make choices that real people would not make.  But that’s OK.  The result is enjoyable if not the immersive emotion journey that movie fans are used to.

Most of all it is all Wes Anderson.  If anybody else had made this story, it would have been unbearably corny.  Only Anderson’s hip indifference saved it from this fate.  And at the same time he made a compelling film.

Which is a pretty good trick.

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