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Review: Wes Anderson finds near perfect balance in 'Moonrise Kingdom'

The writer-director's humanism and surrealism blend well in the fable starring young talents Kara Hawyard and Jared Gilman with Bill Murray, Frances McDormand and Bruce Willis.

May 25, 2012|By Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times Film Critic
  • Newcomer Jared Gilman stars as Sam in "Moonrise Kingdom."
Newcomer Jared Gilman stars as Sam in "Moonrise Kingdom." (Focus Features )

It seems fitting that "Moonrise Kingdom,"arguably Wes Anderson's most grown-up film yet, is a warm and funny fable about kids on the cusp.

Here the writer-director's tendency toward the allegorical casts a magical spell with Anderson finding a near perfect balance between the humanism and the surreal that imprints all of his work — sometimes for the better ("The Royal Tenenbaums,""Fantastic Mr. Fox") and sometimes not ("The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou"). In this tale about growing up and falling in love, it seems Anderson has found his true heart.

The story takes place in 1965, when, after a year of letters and longing, a couple of 12-year-olds, Suzy (Kara Hayward) and Sam (Jared Gilman), carry out their plan to run away together. She's a lovely, lonely girl, a voracious reader of grand adventures. He's a precocious Khaki Scout in a coonskin cap and horn rims.

They are hitting that age when nothing in the world — from the family you've got to your own skin — seems to fit anymore. Before it is over they will carve out their own special place, Moonrise Kingdom, as they try to escape a world that tests them at every turn and tries to tear them apart.

Despite all those trials, the environment is pure Norman Rockwell, painted by as many light moments as dark. The film unfolds in a wind-swept little populated swath of Rhode Island, with rocky inlets and fields of long grass that evoke a more innocent time, as does the emotion between the youngsters, a kind of unsullied purity to their connection that feels lost to most kids these days. The film's narrator, played by a heavily bearded Bob Balaban, turns up on the shore looking like a birder on an outing and helping create a sense that this is a land of fables. He lays out the facts of the situation — as the kids are heading out, a storm of major proportions is heading in.

That theme of storms floods the film, starting with Sam and Suzy's first encounter at a church production of Noah's Ark. She's a raven, he's in the audience. A few words and a few looks is all that it takes to make it clear that they are soul mates and that in Gilman and Hayward we have rare young talents who don't need words to communicate what they're feeling.

Anderson and co-writer Roman Coppola are dipping into everything from first love to the Peter Pan syndrome to some very adult problems that beset the grown-ups in Suzy and Sam's life. The central ones are Suzy's parents, Mr. and Mrs. Bishop (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand), Sam's Scout master (Edward Norton), the local sheriff Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) and Social Services, an icy Tilda Swinton so much a bureaucrat she's not even given a name. It's a top-notch ensemble, but they primarily serve as supporting players, always a step or two behind in understanding what Sam and Suzy are going through.

Before the kids head into an uncertain future, there is a glimpse of what they are leaving behind. Suzy spends her days reading, her three younger brothers playing nearby. There's usually a record on, not rock 'n' roll but "The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra," with the narrator explaining how such disparate elements come together to make something amazing, a metaphor for Suzy's life. The musical choices, with Randall Poster as music supervisor, and original music by Alexandre Desplat, are so inventive they become their own narrative force.

Sam's lot is more difficult. He's an orphan who has bounced around the foster care system. In the school year, he's bullied by the other boys in the house; this summer he's being tortured by the other Scouts at a wilderness camp not too far from Suzy's house. It's run by Scout Master Ward, a nervous, chain-smoking, well-meaning incompetent, very well played by Norton. Willis gives one of his most sensitive turns in years as the dense but sweet Captain Sharp, who becomes something of a father figure for Sam, albeit one who shares his beer.

The sets, with Adam Stockhausen in charge of production design, are a study in found objects perfectly placed. All that attention to detail that Anderson is known for is recorded in sweeping and often unbroken shots by cinematographer Robert Yeoman ("Bridesmaids"), who brings a kind of softness to "Moonrise." There are classic Anderson touches — the Scouts' tents precisely spaced, like ducks in a row, or the tree house, high on a pole, no tree in sight.

The heart of the film comes as Sam and Suzy build their Moonrise Kingdom on a rocky beach and the way small truths emerge as Suzy reads from her books or Sam keeps the campfire burning. Though there are countless small, meaningful touches in nearly every scene, everything about "Moonrise" is spare. The dialogue is exceedingly crisp, often delivered in short bursts.

It works especially well when the grown-ups are sorting out what to do with the youngsters at the various crises points along the way — difficult, life-changing decisions in the offing. That spareness gives "Moonrise" an appealing briskness and pragmatism too that helps keep the many complicating factors from weighing things down. It is just one of the many ways in which Anderson keeps the film's emotions in check, ensuring this very heartfelt film never gets anywhere near mush.


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