Wes Anderson's MOONRISE KINGDOM is a tale of young love on the run from the forces of conformity and sorrow. Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) is a bookworm with a penchant for stealing and spying. Sam (Jared Gilman) is a bullied Khaki Scout prone to setting fires and generally exasperating his foster family (to the point where he is no longer welcome in their home). They meet one summer during a community production of Benjamin Britten's musical adaptation of the miracle play "Noye's Fludde", and plot their escape via a series of clandestine correspondences. They are twelve-year-old kindred spirits who have found in each other a sanctuary from sadness; now, as Britten's cuckoo sings, away they must.
But away to where? The tragedy of their predicament is that they live on New Penzance Island off the storm-swept coast of New England; short of braving the choppy waters, their options are limited, and capture almost certain. Fortunately, Sam and Suzy have youthful idealism and no shortage of crazy on their side; they're determined to make a home in the wild, and fight off anyone who dares to drag them back to civilization.
Sam and Suzy don't realize it, but theirs is a battle to preserve the wonder and possibility of childhood - and sooner or later, it's a battle they're going to lose. This is the bittersweet notion lingering on the fringes of MOONRISE KINGDOM, and it's what resonates long after the the laughter subsides - which, to be clear, takes some time, because up until the quietly devastating denouement, this is one of Anderson's funniest films. It's also his most controlled. Beginning with the meticulously-staged morning ritual of the Bishop household (cleverly accompanied by the isolated instrumentation of Britten's "The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, Op. 34"), it is invigoratingly apparent that Anderson is in complete command of his craft. Every shot is masterfully composed, every movement of the camera dazzlingly precise, and each character introduction conveying pages of backstory via wardrobe and word choice alone.
After the sensational prelude, Anderson and co-writer Roman Coppola appear to settle into a linear groove with Khaki Scout Master Ward (Ed Norton) and New Penzance's chief law enforcement officer, Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), attempting to make sense of Sam's sudden disappearance. Though they're led to believe Sam is a troubled kid in need of some institutional tough love (which, considering this is 1965, could entail electroshock therapy or worse), both men are sympathetic to the boy's plight. They're miffed that anyone would give up on a twelve-year-old boy who lost both his parents, and are far more focused on his safe return than the resulting punishment. Of course, Suzy's parents (Frances McDormand and Bill Murray) aren't Sam's biggest fans once the kids' plot is sniffed out, but the adults aren't the villains here (at least not until Tilda Swinton shows up as a severe social worker); mostly, they're just lonely.
If the fugitive young lovers have anything to worry about, it's Sam's fellow Khaki Scouts, who didn't like him in the first place and have now decided that he's to be brought in dead or alive (fortunately, Sam's packing an air rifle). Otherwise, they've got a decent head start on their pursuers, and Sam's expert navigational skills to guide them (the island is also without paved roads, so it's up to the village's airborne mail carrier to spot them amidst the variable foliage). This gives them time to get to know each other outside of their correspondence (recapped in a wittily concise montage), and to discover that, despite their shared emotional isolation, their reasons for running away are not entirely the same. Suzy wants to be far away from the loveless obligation of her parents' marriage; Sam's trauma is the absence of parents altogether, and the sham of other people raising him. Sam's done with parents. He's a good Khaki Scout. He can take care of himself.
It's the adults who are truly insecure. Scout Master Ward is devoted to the scouting life, but he has yet to prove himself as a great leader of young men (as opposed to Harvey Keitel's Commander Pierce, who runs his elaborately-laid-out camp like a neckerchiefed General Patton). Walt and Laura Bishop quarrel like they lawyers they are, and seem utterly disinterested in their children. Captain Sharp lives alone on a boat, and carries on a furtive relationship with Laura. They are all unfulfilled, and powerless to do much about it. That they're shut off from the rest of the world on New Penzance only heightens their desolation.
Did I mention that this movie is hilarious?
What makes MOONRISE KINGDOM an instant classic and Anderson's finest work to date is its kind-heartedness. While Anderson's previous films have been anything but emotionally remote, they've generally centered on the redemption of a scoundrel. Max Fischer, Royal Tenenbaum, Steve Zissou and Mr. Fox are all entertainingly self-absorbed rogues who slowly come to understand the damage they've inflicted on those around them. Sam and Suzy are the damaged, and it's neglect that's messed them up. And now they're looking down the barrel of adolescence, knowing that they don't fit in, and wondering whether they'll ever be happy. They will. With each other. That the adults don't understand this - even if it is an impossible desire - speaks to their own unhappiness.
This is one of the most impressive ensembles Anderson has ever assembled, but we wouldn't be talking about a masterpiece here were it not for the performances of Gilman and Hayward. Yes, their natural expressions (particularly Hayward's Anna Karina-ish moue) effortlessly get across their inner-resentment, but looking the part isn't enough. It is incredibly difficult to perform Anderson's stylized dialogue without it sounding forced, but both actors fire off their banter like seasoned pros while subtly exuding a palpable yet awkward affection for one another. Contrast this with the resigned exchanges shared by Willis (at his understated best) and McDormand (grating without being hateful about it), and you've got a heartbreakingly realistic preview of where Sam and Suzy could be in forty years.
The final interaction between Sam and Suzy leaves us hoping for permanence, but we know better. If they're lucky, they'll cherish the memory of their few days in the wild together, and revisit it from time to time to stave off bitterness and regret. Those emotions go dormant so easily, which is why Anderson's achievement here is nothing short of miraculous. He has captured with deeply-felt adornment and deadpan sincerity that sliver of young adulthood when we are happy, in love and oblivious to the passage of time. Though emotionally restrained, MOONRISE KINGDOM is one of the most powerfully evocative films I have ever seen, a coming-of-age story that, in the years to come, will be discussed in the same breath as THE 400 BLOWS, MURMUR OF THE HEART and STAND BY ME. As in Britten's opening composition, every instrument is in tune and deftly conducted by a one-of-a-kind maestro. Bravo, brava, bravi...