Moonrise Kingdom takes place, as all of writer-director Wes Anderson’s films do, in a world of his own making. It’s a child’s-eye view of summer, 1965, rendered in the style of vintage juvenile fiction (the kinds of witty, precocious books by people like E. L. Konigsberg and Louise Fitzhugh) with a few flourishes borrowed from Jean-Luc Godard, set to the children’s choral music of Benjamin Britten. The film’s vintage setting allows Anderson to add a layer of period detail to his meticulously designed costumes and art direction, and also lends the film a nostalgic haze—it’s a paean both to the innocent summer adventures of childhood and to the kinds of whimsically clever children’s stories (for page and screen) that don’t often get told anymore.
The plot concerns two pre-teen misfits, a bespectacled orphan named Sam (Jared Gilman) and a sullen bookworm named Suzy (Kara Hayward), who embark on a romantic adventure together. (A fastidious boy scout, he brings along maps and fishing tackle; she brings a suitcase filled with library books and a battery-operated record player.) They set off into the woods, pursued by a battalion of concerned adults (Suzy’s parents, Sam’s scout master, a police officer) and eventually set up camp on the beach, where they stage their own more or less chaste version of The Blue Lagoon, exchanging first kisses and dancing to yé-yé music. These scenes are so lovingly handled and quietly paced that it’s hard not to feel disappointed when Anderson ramps up the action in the last act, as the adults close in and a violent storm strikes. What’s wonderful about the Sam/Suzy scenes is that we’re left alone with only two characters who take up the whole screen, as opposed to the later scenes, when Anderson—always one to crowd his films with amusing but often extraneous minor characters—introduces a domineering social services agent, another scout master, etc. (Anderson’s films would, on the whole, improve greatly by cutting their casts by half; they always end up as crowd scenes in which everyone seems to recede into the background.)
Moonrise Kingdom is Anderson’s dreamiest, prettiest movie to date, and perhaps even his most ornately stylized, which is to say that in spots it’s as good as anything he’s ever done—I especially loved a beautifully edited letter-writing montage in which we catch the most fleeting glimpses of Sam and Suzy’s troubled backstories. But that’s not to say that it’s free of his usual flaws: a cumbersomeness in handling his characters and a tin ear for comedy. Does anyone actually laugh at Anderson’s jokes? The audience at the screening I attended sat in silence, stone-faced. Even his characters, the children included, rarely break their deadpan stares. Moonrise Kingdom, done up in the style a 1960s children’s book illustration, looks great but feels flat. Anderson remains an accomplished director of pictures that don’t move.