Phases: On Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom

05/23/2012 4:00 AM |

Moonrise Kingdom
Directed by Wes Anderson

The 1960s that have been such a stylistic touchstone for Wes Anderson are the actual setting of what is his first explicitly period film, a tale of boy and girl and love on the run in the wilds of New England. Likewise, the meticulous alternate universes that Anderson keeps curating are echoed by a key setting in the beautifully orchestrated and shot Moonrise Kingdom: the quaint world of ersatz Boys Life troops called the Khaki Scouts, where kids learn discipline, pup-tent maintenance, and other Davy Crockett skills. It’s all not enough to hold down principled, bespectacled, adenoidal orphan Sam, who runs away with his pen pal Suzy—touchingly devoted to being together, and fretted over or pursued by her lawyer parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand), the wistful local sheriff (Bruce Willis), a conflicted Scout Master (Edward Norton), bullying scouts, and ultimately the dread Social Services.

But if the movie is set in the 1960s (which Mad Men has so aggressively colonized since Anderson’s last live-action), it contains the 1950s: Hank Williams songs on radio rotation, kids copping attitudes from GIs in war movies, a New England coastal setting dubbed New Penzance and evoking some lost WASP hinterlands out of dropped references in a bygone New Yorker short story. Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward), ornery in school or the orphanage but relaxed in flight, behave like a well-intentioned married couple who’ve never lived together. Sam is a comically responsible little man, playing the role of knowledgeable protector, and a poignantly earnest and caring student of his new minidressed companion. Even when Suzy is showing off her science-fiction books or Françoise Hardy record, the novice performers make the details more than the tinny joke it so often is in Rushmore or Royal Tenenbaums (i.e., as a colleague once put it, “Look, kids with interests!”).

Shot on vivid Super 16 among the fields, streams, and coves of Rhode Island, Moonrise finds Anderson refining the autumnal Anglo-idyllic palette of Fantastic Mr. Fox for the coast (amidst a titular reference to arch-romantic Frank Borzage’s Moonrise). Special zeal is reserved for video-unfriendly yellow, emblazoned on tents and scout scarves and badges, and, in introductory sequences, the palpable start and stop of wheeled comic-strip dollying and swish pans. As the story and its protagonists develop, Benjamin Britten’s instructional piece “A Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra” is the musical manifestation of finding your place, a kind of stand-in for the missing town center; its creative dispersion is bookended by the historic storm that lashes and unifies New Penzance’s small crowd. All is memorialized on the fly by Bob Balaban’s to-camera, off-center meteorological reports on the gathering storm. It seems relevant at this point to state that every Wes Anderson film I have seen deepens with the second viewing, like a memory upon reflection, and just so do Sam and Suzy, strong characters growing into personalities peeking around the edges of learned roles and affectations, seem to be living a romance whose full intensity they will experience only in retrospect.

Opens May 25