I remember falling in love when I was twelve years old. I did not take the matter lightly, and every romantic gesture was made with previously unused reserves of emotion. If any adults had seen me, they’d probably laugh or tell me how cute I was. Moonrise Kingdom, the new film by Wes Anderson, understands this discrepancy between how young love feels and how it looks. Amid Anderson’s trademark style, which has nearly become a fetish, there is a touching romance between two twelve year-olds who treat their relationship with grave sincerity.
Whether it’s a Manhattan mansion or a train to India, Anderson always places his characters in a self-contained bubble. Here he goes the extra mile by putting a body of water between his setting and the rest of the universe. On the island of New Penzance in 1965, a group of Khaki Scouts go through their early morning rituals. Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton) notices Sam (Jared Gilman), the least popular kid, ran away with a canoe and a cache of supplies. He’s left the scouts to live with Suzy (Kara Hayward), the daughter of two well-to-do attorneys (Frances McDormand and Bill Murray, reliable as ever). Ward alerts Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), head of the island’s police, and they form a search party with the other Khaki scouts, plus a trusty mutt.
The chemistry between Sam and Suzy takes time to develop. Their early interactions are clumsy and stilted, as if the pair ran away without thinking about why. There is relief in scenes with the adults since Anderson has them speak with the wry language fans have come to expect. But as he spends more time with Gilman and Heyward, who give terrifically solemn performances, we understand why their characters fit. Sam is a quietly rebellious orphan, and Suzy hates her family. Alienation is their common bond. When they erect a campsite on a nearby beach, they finally trust each other enough to show their affection. By deadpanning the scene, which is strange and lovely and a little disturbing, we don’t know whether to laugh or weep. Either reaction is fitting.
Anderson plunges the audience into a world of mannered quirkiness, and his detractors may roll their eyes at the familiar style. The opening credits look hand-written, the camera pans left or right with unwavering steadiness, and the clothes are bespoke. But the repeated tropes are not a crutch for Anderson since Moonrise Kingdom is his most focused work. With the exception of a narrator (Bob Balaban) who provides us meteorological context, the characters only think about Sam or Suzy. The grown-ups are buffoons by design; the movie is from Sam and Sally’s perspective, and at first only the filmmakers understand what they are thinking.It takes time for the adults to accept the young couple, and the inexorable way they change their minds is a delight. All the newcomers, Norton and Willis in particular, humanize their characters brilliantly while still subjecting themselves to gentle mockery. And in a scene-stealing performance, Jason Schwartzman gets the biggest laughs as a nickel-grubbing khaki scout.
The best thing about Moonrise Kingdom is how it never condescends to children. It can be funny when a group of preteens hatch escape plans or prepare for battle, but what matters is how they never seem like they’re in on the joke. Using his unique perspective on behavior, Anderson creates a peculiar situation and lets the conflict play out with logic and empathy. As in Fantastic Mr. Fox, the director seems to understand children better than they understand themselves. Precocious kids will see themselves as they watch Moonrise Kingdom, and older audiences will remember what it was like to feel like them. It’s a strange miracle how Anderson evokes our most awkward years and has us laugh, not cringe.