Director Wes Anderson has something of a cult following among movie aficionados. Some of his films, such as "Rushmore" and Bottle Rocket," were quirky indie hits that established him as a filmmaker with a distinctive voice. Although his target audience and awards voters love his films, mainstream moviegoers have yet to really attach themselves to his work.
That may all change with "Moonrise Kingdom," which is as close to mainstream movie-making as Anderson may ever get. Though it is not exactly a mainstream film, many average movie ticket buyers may find they enjoy the film. Although it has the signature elements of an Anderson movie, it should be able to draw in a larger audience because the humor and story are more universal than in most of Anderson's past work.
The film is set in 1965 New England, where young Suzy (Kara Hayward) and Sam (Jared Gilman) meet at a church pageant. There is an instant attraction, and the pair begins a year-long correspondence. During that year, their letters grow ever more intimate, with each revealing things about their past and present that only lovers and close friends generally share.
Suzy has two very overbearing parents, Walt and Laura (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand), who seem to be going through the motions of life without enjoying it. They are clearly bored and perhaps not really in love anymore. Suzy resists getting caught up in their malaise and dreams of a happier life somewhere else. Meanwhile, Sam has been dealing with his case worker (Tilda Swinton) because his foster parents have given up on him. He has no family and is routinely bullied at the summer camp he is sent to, which is led by Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton).
As they share their personal pains and wishes for the future, it is obvious that these two are falling in love. Normally, this story would be considered incredibly romantic by Hollywood movie standards. The only problem is that these two are both only 12 years old. The thought of 12-year-olds falling in love is terrifying to most parents because the children are so young.
In the hands of a less-skilled director, the young love story in "Moonrise Kingdom" could have turned bad very quickly. It takes a gentle hand to show just how innocent the love is between these two characters. At 12, they are both just old enough to think they know better than the adults around them and too young to embark on a real relationship. Nevertheless, their love is very touching and extraordinarily sweet. There is no tawdriness here, as the script by Anderson and Roman Coppola stays out of that territory altogether.
Suzy and Sam decide to meet up in the woods near his camp. She sneaks out of her house, he escapes the camp bullies and the two run away together. This sets off a major search for the two tender lovebirds that brings together her parents, his social worker, two police officers (Bruce Willis and Harvey Keitel) and the kooky scout master. The search could have been very dramatic but the script infuses it with a lot of humor that shows the shortcomings of all of the adults, who are clearly nowhere near the higher level of maturity already reached by the two kids they are tracking.
There are some really big names in "Moonrise Kingdom," including several actors who were Academy Award nominees and winners. Director Anderson is also no stranger to award nominations. It would have been easy for all these well-known actors to overshadow the newcomers playing Suzy and Sam, yet Hayward and Gilman do not let that happen. This is the acting debut for both stars, neither of whom have previous acting credits, according to the Internet Movie Database. Even without experience, they deliver their lines flawlessly and are completely believable as two kids who find something in each other that nobody else quite sees.
Even the score to "Moonrise Kingdom" is memorable. It was written by Alexandre Desplat and is prominently featured in the end credits, which should not be missed. Don't leave the theater until the credits have finished rolling or else you will miss a special surprise.
The camerawork and colors of the film all evoke past Anderson work. There are even some quirky bits thrown in, such as the narrator (Bob Balaban) who claims to be the "spirit" of the sleepy New England island on which the story takes place. With his signature mix of quirky, awkward and funny, Anderson has created a heartwarming winner in "Moonrise Kingdom."