Monday, June 18, 2012

Goodbye, Children: MOONRISE KINGDOM

During the summer of 1965, on a small island of the coast of Maine, a 12-year-old boy (Jared Gilman) slips away from summer camp to meet up with his secret pen pal, a 12-year-old girl (Kara Hayward) who lives with her family on the other side of the island. The boy and the girl, friendless and lonely, figure themselves romantic adventurers, meant to head off on their own and care for each other in the wilds of this island. He has learned much about surviving in the woods from his camp days. He proudly wears a coonskin cap and plans out their hike with itemized checklists and carefully studied maps stuffed in his bag amongst his compass and air rifle. She has learned much about adventure from library books about brave girls going off on their own to become magical heroines. She packed as many as she could fit in her suitcase, along with her favorite record, a portable battery-powered record player, a pair of left-handed scissors, and her pet cat.

These items reveal that their excursion originates from a particular childhood understanding of running away, but the new feelings stirring inside them, of curiosity, attachment, caring and, yes, perhaps even love, feel so strong and immediate. In self-confident, yet halting ways these kids begin to see their adventure writ larger and more passionately on their hearts. The boy is an orphan and the girl is emotionally troubled and from an eccentric family. To them, this is not just an attempt to flee lives they find inadequate and have a fun time together. They’re fleeing into their fantasies and the merging of their imaginations becomes not just a woodsy adventure or a lovely camping experience, but a grand romance with two budding lovers on the run. The boy’s peppy scout leader (Edward Norton, with a gee-whiz wholesome exterior) has marshaled his remaining campers and joined forces with the island’s sole police officer (Bruce Willis, bespectacled and business-like) to track down the runaways. The girl’s family – three small brothers, a worried mother (Frances McDormand, tightly-wound) and a slow-boiling depressive father (Bill Murray, looking through sad, tired eyes) – join in on the search as well, which is rather patient, considering the circumstances.

This is Moonrise Kingdom, the new film from the distinctive and consistent Wes Anderson who takes this opportunity to populate one of his terrifically realized dollhouse worlds to make a film with a simple, sweet, and emotionally open surface, and a beautiful, moving emotional complexity underneath. Unlike his earlier films like The Royal Tenenbaums and The Darjeeling Limited, which are in large part about people trying desperately in various neurotic ways to prevent the collapse of familial relationships, this is a film that locates its concerns directly on the border between generations, finding a little community trying to work together, a ragtag collection of flawed adults and precocious children out to find two of their own. (The group picks up small, funny roles for Bob Balaban, Tilda Swinton, Jason Schwartzman, and Harvey Keitel as it goes along.) It’s a situation in which adults might realize how childish they behave, in which children try on identities they imagine belong to more mature perspectives. Finding the humor inherent within, Anderson (who wrote the script with Roman Coppola) balances scenes of arch dialogue matter-of-factly stated and cartoonish delight elaborately staged – like a treehouse perched at the very top of a tall tree in a scout camp run with a regimented, militaristic structure – with scenes of striking emotional honesty and clarity.

This is a film full of delicate scenes, tenderly acted by Gilman and Hayward, the young leads. This is their first film and Anderson has helped them create such confidently, wonderfully drawn characters, located so precariously on the edge of childhood, but not quite ready to tip over into full-blown adolescence. Each of these kids has moments where they look straight-ahead into the camera in tight close-up and reveal such deep feelings, which only adds to their soft kindness and moments of adorable precociousness. Their relationship – love, or something like it – develops with an emotional truth that is often (unfairly) not associated with Anderson’s exacting mastery over the formal elements of filmmaking. Torn between the worlds of childhood imagination and problems of adulthood, these two troubled kids run away to the woods where the privacy of shared solitude allows them to become who they think they are, deep down inside. Here is a film world of real innocence and real potential danger. This is a film with a profound respect for childhood and the perspectives and feelings of the young. Music swells and the camera moves for big moments of emotionality; to the young, any event sufficiently impactful is worthy of a personal epic. After all, the young couple first met the year before at a local church’s production of Benjamin Britten’s Noah’s ark opera, an appropriately ornate dramatic backdrop to spark puppy love. Their escape feels ripped out of the movies and informed by the adventures in the books they cart with them and the sophistication they think find in totems of adulthood (like French pop music or a pipe).

This is not a fussy film despite Anderson’s typically mannered approach and meticulous art design, which here makes the New England island setting appear to have leapt right out of a charming, slightly yellowed, mid-century storybook, a delicate world of children’s imagination nestled just-so in the midst of rugged natural terrain. The dollhouse qualities of the sets, props, and costumes are placed in a context of forest and bodies of water. The camera glides, finds stillness, and even shakes from time to time as Anderson puts delicate fantasy – heightened, but not fantastical – and relaxed farce right up against quiet scenes of intergenerational emotional connection. This is a sweet, sad comedy about comically confident children and comically flawed grown ups. Selflessly acted, but no less richly evocative, the adults in the cast allow deadpan ease to mask roiling turmoil, to blend so effortlessly with their young costars, who let turmoil settle in like they’re discovering it for the first time. The ensemble moves through the simple plot like a finely tuned orchestra, each striking different notes at different times, blending to become a whole moving experience.

Moonrise Kingdom is a deeply romantic film about change, about moving into adolescence, about the doubts, uncertainty, depression, and confusion that can follow into adulthood where such feelings can settle, creating miscommunications and dissatisfactions. It’s such an evocative portrayal of this collision of moods and sensations in a film that’s at once so contained, taking place over the course of only a few days on a small island, and yet filled with so many whimsical flourishes of Anderson’s imagination that it feels like a rich world, wonderfully, carefully designed. It’s a film full of liminal moments shot through with a potent melancholy of childhood’s end and the growing knowledge that adults have within them a deep sadness and uncertainty. Passions and interests seize the soul with intensity and then pass like an especially violent storm. And from the devastation comes new and unexpectedly fruitful growth.

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