Director: Wes Anderson
Starring: Jared Gilman, Kara Hayward, Bruce Willis, Frances McDormand, Bill Murray
"Quirk" doesn't always play well. Done inelegantly, it can come across as "cloying" rather than "charming." Wes Anderson is a master of quirky movies, a writer and director who always manages to find that delicate balance that keeps his projects from careening out of control and becoming annoyingly twee. Anderson is able to create stories and characters that are overtly artificial but that also feel "real" within the context of their own rules because Anderson creates living, breathing worlds in which to house those stories and characters. His latest, Moonrise Kingdom, is no exception and is definitely a contender for his best so far.
Set in 1965 on a small island in New England, the story centers on two twelve-year-olds, orphaned Khaki Scout Sam (Jared Gilman) and troubled Suzy (Kara Hayward). Having met the previous summer, the two have spent a year exchanging letters and making plans to run away together. After Sam escapes from Khaki Scout Troop 55 with a canoe full of supplies and Suzy takes off from home with a suitcase full of books and her brother's record player, the entire island is on the hunt for them, including Suzy's parents (Frances McDormand and Bill Murray), the island's police officer (Bruce Willis), Troop 55's Scout Master (Edward Norton) and, indeed, the entire Troop, none of whom particularly like Sam and several of whom bring along weapons just in case they have to take him in by force.
Sam and Suzy are both misfits who dream of escaping their surroundings, which are populated by people who just don't understand them. They each have rich fantasy lives and the relationship becomes part of that, something blown up to romantic proportions as they try to evade capture. They are, however, captured (the island is pretty small, after all) and separated but, having won the respect of Troop 55, find allies in them who help them to escape again, this time to another nearby island. The stakes are higher this time, as Social Services (Tilda Swinton) is on her way to collect Sam and possibly subject him to electroshock therapy in order to deal with his behavioral issues, and because a huge storm is on the way which very well could wash the inhabitants of the tiny island away.
Moonrise Kingdom is populated by familiar actors, but rests primarily on the shoulders of Gilman and Hayward. The characters played by McDormand, Murray, Willis, Norton and Swinton provide splashes of color to the canvas, but its Sam and Suzy who provide the story with its centre and who give it a degree of emotional resonance. Because of them, Moonrise Kingdom is at once an adventure story, a star-crossed love story, and an effective coming-of-age story. The characters act older than they are, proceeding on their adventure and with their romance with a seriousness beyond their age, but both Gilman and Hayward bring enough sincerity and gravity to their performances to make this work.
Sincerity is the key to Anderson's work because, while his films are very funny, they're always played straight. Anderson has very firm control of the tone of his work, so much so that he can mix a bit of slapstick, like the sight of a twelve year old getting struck by lightning, into a film where dialogue, rather than action, is paramount. I wouldn't classify Moonrise Kingdom as my favourite of Anderson's film (now and forever, The Royal Tenenbaums has my heart), but it's an excellent film, a delightful fable that has heart without being sunk by sentimentality and wit without being too clever by half. In other words, it's pretty much pitch perfect.