The central conflict in many—arguably, all—of Wes Anderson’s films is that of belonging. Characters strive, clumsily, to fit in. Often, it’s their very enthusiasm that proves most problematic: The more forcefully they assert themselves, the more their fundamental eccentricity is revealed. The aspiring criminal Dignon in Anderson’s debut, Bottle Rocket, Max in Rushmore, Royal in The Royal Tennebaums, Francis in The Darjeeling Limited: All attempt, by sheer force of will and personality to join, create or mend family. Typically, there are injuries en route.
Anderson’s new film, Moonrise Kingdom, might seem at first a departure, as the protagonists, 12-year-olds Sam Shakusky and Suzy Bishop, choose not to belong. Sam (Jared Gilman), already an orphan, quits his Khaki Scout troop and runs away from their camp; Suzy (Kara Hayward) responds to Sam’s written invitation to join him, leaving behind her unhappily wed attorney parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand).
In Anderson’s previous films, the families—whether literal or metaphorical—are exclusive groups, realities within realities, microcosms: the precocious Tennenbaum clan, Rushmore Academy. This has been reiterated in the filmmaker’s tightly constructed, almost Rube Goldberg-esque aesthetic. Anderson’s sets and shots are packed and artificial, at once fanciful and a bit maniacal in their precision. Here, again, Moonrise Kingdom is different: Though still detailed, it is open and far less confined, taking in the meadows and rocky beaches of New Penzance (the movie’s Nantucket-like island location). This, along with the fact that the movie is set in 1965, creates a distinct Norman Rockwell feel.
There is, though, a subversion streaked through Anderson’s Americana: Suzy brings with her a suitcase of her favorite fantasy books and a Françoise Hardy record. It is also worth noting that Sam and Suzy first meet (the previous summer, in flashback) at a performance of Benjamin Britten’s Noye’s Fludde. Did Anderson mean these as symbols of exotic otherness and the promise of a new world to be created by Sam and Suzy as they enter adolescence? Probably, but he doesn’t belabor them. So, I won’t either.
Moonrise Kingdom is, in fact, a remarkably simple and accessible movie. Anderson cultists will not be put off, I think; but those who have found him too precious in the past may find it easier to grasp. For all of Anderson’s deliberate craft, this film seems comparatively unstrained, almost effortless. The number of big-name actors in the movie, frankly, worried me at first. But all are restrained and well used. Anderson’s go-to, Murray, adds his usual deranged sad-sack appeal, and McDormand is good as well. More surprisingly, Bruce Willis, as the island’s cop, is appealing, and both Edward Norton, as the well-meaning scoutmaster, and Jason Schwartzman, as the Milo Minderbinder-style hustler of scouting, add fine comic splashes. (Increasingly, I have found these last two unrestrained and annoying, but each is perfect, here.)
And the young actors portraying Sam and Suzy are perfect, as well. Anderson has found in Gilman the actor I think he wanted for Rushmore—awkward, earnest, capable of evincing the most unlikely competence. Hayward, for her part, nails the smoldering sweetness of a difficult preteen girl. Where earlier Anderson films present family dynamics as Gordian knots, Moonrise Kingdom follows more closely this one thread: the really very charming love story of Sam and Suzy, who choose, after all, to belong to each other.