Moonrise Kingdom: Great Film, Little Attention


It seems that every summer, right in the middle of a whole load of big superhero movies, one or two really excellent “little movies” sneak in and win our hearts. Moonrise Kingdom fits the bill precisely. No one swings from tall buildings or uses high-tech gear. All you have are regular people working through real lives and doing it beautifully.

The movie takes place in 1965, centering on the lives of a group of people on an island in New England where a pair of 12-year-olds fall in love and run away. Sam (Jared Gilman) is an orphan, brought to the island for a “khaki scout” camp by Scoutmaster Randy Ward (Edward Norton), while Suzy (Kara Hayward) lives with her parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand), who are well-off attorneys. They had met the previous summer and become pen pals.

Once Sam is on the island, he and Suzy run away and have a lovely time together for several days, reading, dancing and beginning a real romance. Of course, the parents are upset, and a search party finds them. Suzy’s parents forbid her to see him, and Sam is headed for our modern version of reform school, a “juvenile refuge.” The two kids run away again, surviving a hurricane together. The police chief (Bruce Willis) agrees to become Sam’s legal guardian, allowing him to remain on the island, where he can see Suzy.

Not a lot really happens; this is a movie that centers on characters, and the acting is superb. The two kids are lovely; they perform quite naturally and are the very picture of young love. The adults are wonderful. Murray and McDormand are exquisitely restrained. It would be easy to simply play caricature parents, getting a few laughs, but the two remained disciplined. Norton plays a bit of an ambivalent role in that he is sympathetic to their plight but seemingly helpless. Willis again demonstrates that he can be far more than an action hero. His feelings toward Sam undergo a slow change from his early belief that the boy is rotten to a form of protective concern.

Tilda Swinton is very strong as the woman, called only “Social Services,” determined to ensure that Sam is put away, despite the fact that his incarceration would effectively ruin his life. Director Wes Anderson portrays the children as talented and carefree. They are a symbol of all the potential of life for young people. Sam paints; Suzy plays the flute. They both are voracious readers.

Against this, we have a system based solely on harsh, empty rules that has no time for joy. The system doesn’t care that it will ruin the life of a good kid; it exists for rules.

Perhaps Anderson’s use of Benjamin Britten’s music, particularly Noye’s Fludde (Noah’s Flood), is symbolic of a need to smash down bureaucratic rules that get in the way of personal freedom. The two young kids, symbols of freshness and youth, are simply targets of the system. The girl might escape because her parents are protectors. Children without real protection just become victims.

Unfortunately, that relates fairly well to what happens in real life. How often have we heard on television about tragedies involving young people whom the system is supposed to protect but merely abuses? And how often, once the tragedies are known, do we hear excuses that it is the system at fault, not the humans in it?

This film examines this syndrome on a microscopic level. It is easy to love the two kids; they are still young and innocent. They are too young for their love to be tawdry, but the adults all impress their own notions of caring on the relationship. In this instance, love wins the day. There are few special effects, aside from a hurricane (which invokes some of the symbolism of Noah’s flood, designed to sweep away corruption from the world). But the characters are well-rounded, and the performances are superb.

The notion that children can be smart, interested in real culture, and decent is rare in the movies, but it works here. This movie moves to the head of my list for the small movie or two that will be nominated for Oscars for the year. It is that good. If you are not interested in man-spiders, animated teddy bears and Abraham Lincoln chasing vampires, this is a good film to see.