When the Moonrise Kingdom (2012) trailer debuted, a friend of mine watched it seven times in a row and even shed a few tears of excitement. Wes Anderson fans are nothing if not loyal, and Moonrise looked more quintessentially his than anyone could possibly have hoped. Fans had only one question: why their favourite filmmaker had taken so long to make a film about two twelve-year old runaways in love. After all, he’s always been a big kid at heart, bathing his films in bright, primary colours, favouring jangly pop music over moody soundscapes, and delighting in little fleeting details – the sorts of details that viewers even half his age tend to overlook, both onscreen and off.
And yet Anderson’s heroes rarely seemed to see the world like he did. They were often full of regret and longing and disappointment, obsessing over missed chances or lost loved ones. There’s the trio of worn-out brothers in The Darjeeling Limited (2007), searching for a mother they never knew; the failure-and-revenge obsessed Steve Zissou; the Tenenbaums, each weighed down by an inexpressible love. If they were optimists, they were cautious – and their caution usually proved to be justified. One got the sense that a film shot from their perspective would be a lot greyer, a lot less fun. Anderson’s aesthetic came to feel like a challenge to his protagonists (and, indirectly, to his viewers): get up. Notice what you otherwise wouldn’t. Laugh at the very things that now weigh you down. He was like a giddy kid trying to put some joy back into the despondent grown-ups, and it worked. Anderson’s heroes always left his films a little less lonely, a little less disappointed. By the end of the film, they too began to delight in the forgotten and the small. They saw deeper into one another, understood one another a little better. Of course, the transformation was never complete, and tragedy of some kind always threatened the heroes’ newfound happiness. Still, more often than not we heard a bittersweet pop song rise up on the soundtrack and watched the characters take their leave in slow motion, together.
Has Anderson finally met his match? Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) and Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman), the twelve-year old lovers and runaways at the heart of Moonrise Kingdom, don’t need help noticing the world around them, or each other. She wears binoculars at all times because they let her see what she otherwise couldn’t: “I pretend it’s my magic power,” she says. He makes her earrings out of fishhooks and dead beetles. For once Anderson’s childlike, wide-eyed aesthetic isn’t at odds with his protagonists – in fact, it has to strain itself to its limits to keep up with them. It’s not that they’re not wounded. Sam’s an orphan, rejected by his new foster parents and snubbed by his fellow khaki scouts. Suzy’s a friendless, volatile bookworm at odds with her frigid lawyer parents (Frances McDormand and Bill Murray). She recalls finding a book atop their fridge: Coping with the Very Troubled Child. If anything, it’s their heightened attentiveness to the small and overlooked, their refusal to recognize any convention that would reduce the world into a procession of bland and predictable categories, that isolates these kids from their respective communities – communities of children and adults alike.
With Sam and Suzy, Anderson found the perfect standard-bearers for his own artistic temperament. He sets them out into the real world, only to discover that not everyone appreciates his and their innocent rejection of social convention. These kids need each other, and Anderson, too, needs them to be together – only Sam and Suzy can appreciate each other’s way of seeing, which is, after all, his own. They run away and, over the course of one brief summer idyll, live out one of the most achingly lovely onscreen romances in contemporary cinema. No longer saddled with the burden of teaching his mopey protagonists to appreciate life, Anderson is free to delight along with these pre-teen lovers in the singularity of their island home (a tiny, fictional place called New Penzance), in the profusion of details that grace every corner of his and their field of vision, and, most importantly, in their infatuation with each other. His aesthetic was made to capture the overwhelming newness of first love. After a brief flicker of insensitivity, Sam offers Suzy an apology: “I’m on your side,” he tells her. So is Wes. Two twelve-year olds, and a 43-year old filmmaker miraculously gifted with a child’s eye and heart, against the world.
This could only be a first love. Though they might temporarily adopt those titles to legitimize their bond, Sam and Suzy aren’t boyfriend and girlfriend, or husband and wife. They may play pre-determined roles everywhere else, but in their rocky seaside hideaway they’re able to appreciate each other as specific and irreducible individuals – just like they appreciate the singularity of those beetles or fishhooks. They’re celebrating each other, but also a specific way of seeing, which they and Wes and (it seems) few others posses. That way of seeing entails a certain disregard for convention – inexperienced in love and deaf to its unspoken rules, the kids retain a degree of openness and unselfconsciousness rarely seen onscreen. At times it makes us uncomfortable. We might squirm when the kids learn tentatively how to French kiss, or when Sam interrupts a tender moment to tell Suzy he might wet the bed later. But she doesn’t squirm. Okay, she replies matter-of-factly. Love comes to these kids free of any baggage or associations, describing their singular relationship and little else. Will it remain so pure, so unfamiliar?
Yes, Sam and Suzy answer emphatically. Anderson, though, remains silent, lost in thought. He’s thinking of some of the adults that haunt Moonrise Kingdom like ill omens, men like Bruce Willis’ Captain Sharp or Ed Norton’s Scoutmaster Ward. “Did you ever love anyone?” Sam asks Sharp after the kids’ (first) romantic idyll is cut rudely short. “Yes,” the captain replies. “But she didn’t love me back.” Now, Sharp is having an affair with Mrs. Bishop that’s as passionless as her marriage. His job embodies the very social constraints and expectations the kids want to disregard. Like other gloomy but good-hearted Anderson adults, he does earn some measure of consolation by the film’s end – by adopting Sam he manages to recapture a bit of whatever he’s lost to the passing years. But the ache, we sense, remains.
Then there’s Sam’s scoutmaster, whose deep stores of kindness seem matched only by the inconsolable sadness that hovers over him at all times. In this lonely grown-up who has abandoned adult society to inhabit a world created for kids we glimpse what might be a reflection of the filmmaker’s own self-doubt. As time passes, maybe it gets harder to find others who share that naïve way of seeing, who respond to every object and face and setting as if to something strange and unfamiliar and worthy of closer inspection. Maybe as we grow older we have to shrug off all that whimsy and astonishment, if not by nature then by choice – for fear that, if clung to, Anderson’s way of seeing will only isolate us further.
Anderson looks to Sam and Suzy for salvation. Sure enough, there they are, perched on either side of an open window, staring at each other with absolute devotion. With a shot-reverse shot the camera returns their loving gazes. But Sam’s not wearing his khaki scout outfit anymore – he’s traded it for a kid’s-size police uniform. We turn to the soundtrack, hoping to hear something like the Françoise Hardy record to which the kids danced ecstatically on the beach. Instead, one of Britten’s brief “Songs from ‘Friday Afternoons’” scores the kids’ silent exchange of vows. A children’s choir drifts into range:
In April, I opened my bill
In May, I sing night and day.
In June, I change my tune.
In July, far far I fly.
In August, away I must.
Soon Suzy has to go. “I’ll see you tomorrow,” Sam tells her. They each leave the window, she to go eat dinner, he to ride off with Captain Sharp. The choir’s voices fade away.
Mile 3.25 Tidal Inlet, where Sam and Suzy lived out their brief idyll, no longer exists – wiped off the map by the furious storm that powered the film’s climax. Neither, presumably, do the rocks the kids arranged on the seashore to mark it as their own, the rocks with which they gave a name to their childhood Eden: “Moonrise Kingdom.”
Already those few days of freedom are something to be remembered, and recaptured in fits and spurts. When in the film’s parting shot we glimpse Sam’s latest painting, it’s of the rock-studded seaside to which he knows he won’t be able to return, itself a stand-in for a love he’s starting to suspect might fade with age and time. It makes us wonder if we didn’t see, in the kids’ final gaze, a glimmer of longing for a not-too-distant past, a time when whatever it was that united them seemed capable of extending itself into eternity. If they’re already trying to immortalize their love in paint, maybe it’s because they fear it won’t be able to immortalize itself.
Does Anderson pity the kids? Or has he placed too much faith in their fragile first love? What if he trusted so much in their enduring innocence that to be proven wrong would be to lose his own? Whatever the reason, he intercedes, as if to fortify Sam and Suzy’s waning hope. Sam might have turned to art to give a new life to what he sensed was dying, to ensure that, if his first love could no longer be lived, at least it could be remembered. Anderson, for his part, relies on art to give what was dying its old life back. Not content to memorialize, he resurrects. He takes up his camera as a benevolent magician might take up a wand to make a vanished dove re-appear, and in one elegant fade, Moonrise Kingdom exists once more.