Wes Anderson has – over the course of twenty years (yes, I know, time goes quickly!) and seven features – established a consistent aesthetic and reoccurring themes that make him both a prime example of the auteur theory and one of its chief problem children. His reliance on symmetrical compositions that through an alteration of static and mobile framing, focus upon his angst ridden characters facing the transition from childhood to adulthood like quirky amoebas.
In other words, Anderson has a unique voice but retreading the same stylistic and thematic concerns can only sustain aura of the unique for so long. His second film – Rushmore (1998) – is the strongest of his features, thanks to Anderson’s ability to embody his obsessions in very human characters, played by Jason Schwartzman and Bill Murray. His last live action feature – The Darjeeling Limited (2007) – felt redundant and alienating; it was as if Anderson cared more for his compositions than he did for his characters.
Needless to say, I was more than a bit concerned about Moonrise Kingdom (2012). I admit that Anderson won me back as an admirer with his fantastic Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), but the film’s reliance on stop-motion animation made me wonder where Anderson’s talent ended and that of wonderfully skilled animators began. I am pleased to say he has alleviated my concerns with his latest film. As the lights came up after the film, I looked at my wife and a good friend and said “That’s the first time I cared about one of Wes Anderson’s characters in a long time” and empathy, especially in the face of the idiosyncratic, is a must in order to function (unless, of course, your only goal is to alienate, which Anderson never seems to intend to do).
What makes Moonrise Kingdom work are the two characters and the young actor and actress at its center: Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward). Sam is a young boy in the Boy Scout-esque Khaki Scouts who faces problems at home (he’s an orphan) and within his home away from home (he’s the troop’s outsider). Suzy, similarly, is alienated from her father (Bill Murray) and mother (Frances McDormand) for completely different reasons. They view her maturity into young womanhood as a problem and choose to address it indirectly with silence and, in mom’s case, infidelity with the local island police officer (Bruce Willis). After falling in love and with the hope of finding a better existence, Sam and Suzy escape their suffocating milieus and flee into the wilderness of the small – fictional – New England island town of New Penzance.
Anderson characterizes the two young lovers well, exposing their quirks (fantasy literature, orienteering) as a means of masking a deep wound. They support one another with an empathy lacking in their families – whether literal or, in the case of Sam, artificially produced – and grow with one another. At the same time, we realize their love for one another is as young as they are. It’s real, but how long will it last? Anderson, a bittersweet romantic, tends to follow his moments of sweetness (a gift of earrings) with a bite (the piercing of ears with a fish hook) and refuses to give us a definitive answer. Yet, thanks to Anderson’s work with Gilman and Hayward – two incredible young performers with a wide emotional range and budding gift for delivery – we can draw our own conclusion.