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A blandly inexpressive title is the worst thing about Moonrise Kingdom, a willfully eccentric pubescent love story in which even the most minute detail has been attended to in the manner of the most obsessive maker of 19th century dollhouses.
Although it trades in such large matters as true love, destiny, child abandonment and a storm of historic proportions, these issues are of no greater significance in the film than how two plaid fabrics look next to each other or the specific placement of a piece of Benjamin Britten music. In other words, this is a Wes Anderson film — more lightweight than some, possessing a stronger emotional undertow than others — that will strike the uninitiated as conspicuously arch. This Cannes Film Festival opening-night attraction and competition entry offers a raft of rarefied pleasures for the director’s core fan base, but the Focus Features offering has scant hope of breaking through to a wider public upon its May 25 U.S. release.
During the opening sequence, you could be forgiven for thinking you are looking at a dollhouse, if not the underground lair of Mr. Fox and his family. In a series of quick lateral moves, the frame shifts from room to room as in a slide show to reveal the home of the splintered Bishop family, some members of which will figure prominently in what’s to come. But the people pale in relation to the punctilious presentation, which emphasizes decor and geographic and meteorological minutiae about New Penzance Island in New England as well as the strictly regimented routines of the Khaki Scouts, whose 1965 summer session is under way.
Most of Anderson’s shots are head-on, with a locked-down quality that makes them look like they’re ready for a frame. Even more than in his previous work, the dialogue and music possess an extreme degree of declarative definitiveness that works as an aural correlative to the visuals. Everything is in a box — a beautifully wrapped one, at that — allowing for no relaxation, casualness or spontaneous combustion.
Except combustion is what takes place between Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman), a brainy orphan Scout, and Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward), the odd girl out in a family with three preoccupied younger boys, a checked-out dad (Bill Murray) and a mother (Frances McDormand) having an affair with a milquetoasty local cop, Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis). A general panic is sparked when Sam goes AWOL from Camp Ivanhoe to run away with Suzy.
On one level, this is They Live by Night with 12-year-olds: No one understands Suzy at home, and Sam suddenly has been disowned by foster parents, leaving him facing the severe ministrations of Social Services (Tilda Swinton) — that’s her name, not a bureaucracy. But the tone could not be more different. These kids look at life and each other squarely and without blinking — he through thick glasses, she from behind perennially dramatic eye makeup. Not yet able to feel or express passion, they rotely go through the motions of what they know they’re supposed to do — briefly French kissing and touching certain key spots — and acknowledge that they love each other.
Mostly, however, they are pursued — by her parents, by the cop and his dog and, most vigorously, by the Scouts, who purposefully mobilize in ways for which they are theoretically prepared but are rarely required to implement. The idea of the kids running off — on an island, no less — is absurd, of course; nothing can come of it. But there is something close to moving in the way they approach it with such openness and unity; even if they are emotionally and physically immature, Suzy and Sam are as one mentally.
As in Fantastic Mr. Fox, Anderson is able to express sincere personal connection and compatibility while employing a highly artificial style. The result is that the core of Kingdom — the bond between the leads played so forthrightly by newcomers Hayward and Gilman — is strong, even bracing in its resilience.
What takes place around them — the inevitable pursuit by Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton), Scouts mobilizing as if for mortal combat, frantic parents and local law enforcement chasing them around — has jokey artificiality with a relatively modest amusement quotient. Most of the skilled adult actors don’t have much to play: Willis and McDormand at least have a relationship to sort out, but Norton, Murray, Swinton and Harvey Keitel as another Scout Master seem way out on limbs of their own.
But even in the most incidental scene, there is always an arresting design quality to divert the eye, such as the Scouts’ treetop quarters, Captain Sharp’s beautiful old Spartanette trailer home or Social Services’ outrageously dramatic garb, which looks like a combination of a Salvation Army uniform and an outfit Snow White’s Evil Queen would have coveted.
At the 50-minute mark, the errant couple is found, which reverses the dynamic: In the face of legal and family opposition, how are Suzy and Sam going to be reunited? The preannounced deus ex machina plays a major role in this, as do several changes of heart that occur during an increasingly frenzied final act that acquires the air of a miniature disaster movie.
Amplifying the peculiar little story worked out by Anderson and Roman Coppola, who also co-wrote The Darjeeling Limited with the director, is a sense of style that extends to every nook and cranny of the film. Clearly this emanates from Anderson above all, but he has chosen an array of collaborators no doubt stimulated by his exacting standards of artistry and detail, including cinematographer Robert Yeoman, on his sixth feature with Anderson; production designer Adam Stockhausen; costume designer Kasia Walicka-Maimone; and editor Andrew Weisblum.
Alexandre Desplat composed the excellent score, but his work is only a component of an extraordinarily complex soundtrack. Music by Britten is dominant, particularly from Noye’s Fludde (Noah’s Flood), a work by the English composer first performed in 1958 that could have been appropriated by Anderson for use in this watery context or, more likely, served as inspiration for the inundation that climaxes the film. The way Britten is joined on the track by a mix of Saint-Saens, Mozart, Schubert, Hank Williams and Desplat is remarkable and deserving of an essay of its own.
Opens: Friday, May 25 (Focus Features)
Cast: Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Jason Schwartzman, Bob Balaban, Harvey Keitel, Jared Gilman, Kara Hayward
Director: Wes Anderson
Screenwriters: Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola
Rated PG-13, 94 minutes
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