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‘Moonrise Kingdom’ Finds the Sweet But Sad Beauty In Young Romance and Grown-Up Disappointment

By  · Published on May 25th, 2012

Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward in Moonrise Kingdom

It’s the summer of 1965, and a storm is heading towards New Penzance Island. The small dot of land is home to a few permanent residences, but it’s also a seasonal destination for a troop of Khaki Scouts who camp amidst the lush green forests and golden fields. Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton) awakes one morning to discover the troop’s least liked member, Sam (Jared Gilman), has gone missing. Elsewhere on the island the Bishop family realizes their daughter Suzy (Kara Hayward) has also disappeared.

The two pre-teens fell for each other the year prior during a brief, chance meeting, and have now taken off on an adventure as young lovers are prone to do (in movies at least). Sam and Suzy soon have half the island searching for them, but being such a small, sparsely populated place that search party consists almost entirely of the Scout Master, the local constable, Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) and Suzy’s parents, Walt and Laura (Bill Murray, Frances McDormand).

Wes Anderson’s latest film splits its time between the kids on the run and their mostly adult pursuers, and in doing so it tells two sides of a story that offer equal amounts of humor, whimsy and heartbreak. It’s a return to form for the director and his first to follow-up on the promise of Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums as it highlights the wide-eyed possibilities of youth and the harsh reality of adulthood.

“I love you, but you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Sam and Suzy are the film’s lead characters, but while Anderson surrounds them with a bevy of familiar faces to help tell their story the big guns really aren’t needed. The romance between the two is sweet, awkward and possessing of a special innocence that comes in part from sharp dialogue but also from the young actors’ performances. It’d be easy to label them as precocious, but it would also be wrong. Both Gilman and Hayward are making their film debut here, but they succeed with charisma and a very specific confidence that their characters’ actions are motivated by real love. (As real as any twelve year old’s love can be anyway.)

Jason Schwartzman, Harvey Keitel and Bob Balaban fill out the film’s talented cast, and there’s not a misstep in the bunch. The standouts though are the adult male trifecta of Willis, Norton and Murray. All three highlight the regrets of a life not lived to the fullest, but while the first two reveal characters down but not out of life Murray’s Walt Bishop is a man who’s already let it all go. In a film filled with poignant and wise dialogue his wish that the winds outside rip him from his bed is a quiet but devastating moment of despair.

The film’s dialogue, in a script co-written with Roman Coppola, continues Anderson’s penchant for adults and children who speak in the same manner, smart and wryly observed, and with the same cadence and verbal expectations. It’s a world that exists just a step or two away from the real one, but that heightened nature never comes at the expense of the characters or drama.

There are a handful of directors whose work is identifiable as theirs with little more than a minute or so of footage. Michael Bay, David Mamet, and Zack Snyder are easy examples, but Anderson is one of the very few whose films can be recognized with little more than a single frame of film. He’s a very meticulous filmmaker who ensures each second of his films is precisely as he wants, and the resulting shot compositions with cinematographer Robert Yeoman are often suitable for framing.

Moonrise Kingdom may not win any new converts to the cult of Anderson, but his fans will be thrilled to see him back at the top of his game. His film exists just outside the realm of reality while still managing to appeal to viewers’ hearts and minds with wit and real emotion. It’s a beautifully-told tale, and Anderson’s eccentricities, for better or worse, are never allowed to overtake it.

The Upside: Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward shine in their debuts; beautiful cinematography and shot composition; script filled with honest humor and sorrow

The Downside: A couple scenes of physical impossibility go too far; too short

On the Side: This is Wes Anderson’s first live-action film not rated R. It’s PG-13.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.