Moonrise Kingdom: Wes Anderson’s Coming of Age Fable, 2012 Cannes Fest Opening Night

Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom” is one of his most artistically impressive and meticulously made films, but also one that’s too emotionally detached.


Serving as opening night of the 2012 Cannes Film Fest, “Moonrise Kingdom” is an art film par excellence, strictly made for the art and festival crowds. Focus Features, which releases the picture May 25, faces uphill battle in marketing and putting over a feature about teenagers, which is not likely to be seen by many members of this age group.

You have to respect a director who makes movies without thinking of their commercial appeal, a filmmaker who makes movies that are miniatures of the real world—”Moonrise Kingdom” looks like a dollhouse, or an illustrated book–without taking into account the potential audience for his work.

An eccentric fable of coming of age in unusual surroundings and a heartfelt meditation on the all-embracing, secretive nature of first love, “Moonrise Kingdom” continues to explore recurrent issues in Anderson’s output, specifically the notion of outsiders and outcasts vis-à-vis their families and vis-à-vis the society at large.

Those who claim that the American cinema discourages originality should have a closer look at Anderson’s work. Though there are common themes running through his work, each film is idiosyncratic in strategy and style. In the current landscape of moviemaking, Anderson may be the director who carries artifice, abstraction, and stylization to their logical extremes.

Based on a screenplay by Anderson and Roman Coppola, “Moonrise Kingdom” celebrates the fables and foibles, the joys and sorrows, of growing up. Like Anderson’s former films (such as “Rushmore”), it features teenagers who are smarter, more sensitive, and more mature than their parents—and all the other adult figures, who are deliberately constructed as caricatures.

Though set in the past, the narrative (such as it is) is not grounded in any recognizable reality, displaying the same abstract and artsy qualities that most of Anderson’s films have. The dialogue, which is consciously arch, is delivered in a fast, clipped manner.

This movie, like most of Anderson’s work, is dramatically plotless—it’s a conceptual art work that lacks spontaneity and fluidity.

Set on an island off the coast of New England in the summer of 1965, “Moonrise Kingdom” centers on two rebellious teenagers, who fall in love, make a secret pact, and decide to run away from their peers, their families, and the authorities.

Here is a film in which each and every character is eccentric, not just the two protagonists. No individual is ordinary or bears the resemblance of living a routine, everyday life. Name of characters is also often abstract. Tilda Swinton (who has only two or three scenes at the end) plays a woman called “Social Services.”

Film’s (anti) hero is Sam Shakusky (newcomer Jared Gilman), a bright, cerebral boy way ahead of his age and class. He’s an orphan, living with his foster parents, who later proudly disown him. When Sam is declared AWOL from a summer scouts camp, presided by Master Scout Ward (Edward Norton, acting straight-faced), he is told via letter that he is not welcome back into the family.

Sam’s companion is Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward, also a screen debutante),, a product of a larger family. Suzy resides with three younger, preoccupied boys, a father (Bill Murray), who has lost his sense of identity and self-worth, and a mother (Frances McDormant), who is having an affair with the local sheriff, Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis). Susy’s parents have no specific names either–they are Mr. and Mrs. Bishop.

Both Sam and Suzy are lonely, misunderstood adolescents, who upon meeting, during a church pagean, when Sam finds himself in the girls’ dressing room, fall hard for each other, bond for life, and then decide to run away together to the end of the world, in this case an exotic island.

A couple on the run is a recurrent motif in American cinema, and it’s likely that Anderson was influenced by such classics as “They Live by Night,” “Bonnie and Clyde,” and especially Terence Malick’s 1974 masterpiece, “Badlands.”

Malick’s work specifically comes to mind in the juxtaposition of Nature (or Wilderness) Vs. Society (or Civilizaion). Sam and Suzy set orderly camps (and settle as a couple) in one isolated locale after another, only to be chased and confronted by various representatives of the social order. The scene in which Suzy’s father discovers the two in a yellow tent is hilarious.

The last reel assumes Biblical (Noah’s Ark), or at least metaphorical, proportions. As various authorities try to hunt Sam and Suzy down, and often end up chasing each other, a violent storm is brewing off-shore. As a result, the peaceful island community is turned upside down in every which way.

No character in the tale experiences the world, not to mention reality, directly and viscerally. For one thing, most of them wear eye glasses or dark glasses (Sam, Captain Sharp, Mr. and Mrs. Bishop). For another, Suzy wears heavy eye make-up and looks at the world through spectacles. At least a dozen scenes in the film are shown from her subjective POV.

Anderson would not even let his viewers experience the film’s world directly: Every shot is meticulously constructed and framed, dramatically mediated, and consciously controlled, to the point of being archy and starchy.

I have not counted the number of shots in the footage, but for a film whose running time is only 94 minutes, the narrative is unusually dense with frames (and frames within frames), and every narrative strand is both fracture and fragmented. All of it, I might add, by calculated design.

You might think that a movie about misunderstood youths and pseudo-criminal lovers on the run would appeal to teenagers, but you would be wrong. Lacking dramatic urgency and narrative fluency, “Moonrise Kingdom” is an ultra-sophisticated auteurist work, in which every element is hermetically closed, symmetrically framed, and then put in a colorful box for the viewers’ consumption.

Moreover, “Moonrise Kingdom” (not a particularly appetizing or accurate title) contains numerous allusions to art, literature, philosophy, and music, which only educated and subtle viewers will be able to recognize and relate to.

Bric-a-bric, frame-by-frame filmmaking: Attention to the smallest detail informs every element in the film’s complex but smoothly integrated sound, visual, and music designs.


Capt. Sharp – Bruce Willis
Scout Master Ward – Edward Norton
Mr. Bishop – Bill Murray
Mrs. Bishop – Frances McDormand
Social Services – Tilda Swinton
Sam – Jared Gilman
Suzy – Kara Hayward
Cousin Ben – Jason Schwartzman
The Narrator – Bob Balaban


A Focus Features release presented with Indian Paintbrush of an American Empirical Picture production.
Produced by Wes Anderson, Scott Rudin, Steven Rales, Jeremy Dawson.
Executive producers, Sam Hoffman, Mark Roybal. Co-producers, Molly Cooper, Lila Yacoub.
Directed by Wes Anderson.
Screenplay, Anderson, Roman Coppola.