The phrase “adventure movie” was food, in childhood, for the most pleasurable kind of anticipation. The excitement wasn’t ever about the particular exploits that were ostensibly to be celebrated. The promise was of dreamlike freedom of movement through a world at once concrete and mysterious, and shaped for unsupervised play. Moonrise Kingdom (2012) is an adventure movie in the true sense. It breathes an air of freedom and curiosity and what can only be called elation as it charts the flight of a pair of young runaways just emerging from childhood. They prove fitting heroes, figures not so much of bewildered innocence as of awakening brilliance and ferocious clarity of intention.
The territory of their adventure is a New England coastal island, bounded by ocean and with wilderness at its core, but kept within some kind of discipline by the forces of social organization that occupy strategic points: lawyers, a police officer, scoutmasters who maintain their troops in good military order, not to mention the visiting representative of a child welfare agency.
The anarchy here is in the hearts of two precocious and socially maladroit twelve-year-olds, Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward), who find each other against all odds—at an amateur performance of Benjamin Britten’s opera Noye’s Fludde—and carry out a carefully planned getaway into the heart of the island, seeking out the sort of cove that fugitive children dream of: a calm refuge where no adult forces can ever intrude. (The dream of escape pervades Wes Anderson’s films; his first movie, 1996’s Bottle Rocket, opens with Luke Wilson clambering down a rope of bedsheets to get away from a psychiatric clinic, and a similar rope comes into play in Moonrise Kingdom.)
The movie charts the collision of their desire to evade the world and the world’s insistence on finding them and bringing them under some kind of control—not necessarily out of love (Sam is an unwanted orphan, and Suzy’s parents have other problems on their mind) but in automatic response to the scandalousness of their insistence on being free and independent and, finally, married to each other. There are other adults too, among them the local police chief played by Bruce Willis and the scoutmaster beautifully realized by Edward Norton, more capable of a sympathy that seeps into the film through the tersest of exchanges. Suzy and Sam are at the center of a profuse cast of characters, each of whom has some crucial note to sound, and many of whom undergo unexpected evolutions that add continually to the richness of the film’s texture.
Such a bald summary already does injustice to the intricacies of Anderson’s narrative structures, which are as cunningly laid out as Sam and Suzy’s plan of escape. There is a carefully calibrated arrangement and disarrangement of maps and schedules and chronological schemata as the film develops, a narrative trickery both entertaining in itself and filled with the secretive pleasures of childish game playing, with its hideouts and disguises and encoded maps. Anderson’s obsession with hermetic structures mirrors that of his characters, who carefully contain themselves within constructed worlds, whether it’s the sprawling labyrinth of a home inhabited by Suzy’s lawyer parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) or the frontier stockade that serves as the headquarters of the Khaki Scouts of North America.
All human habitations in Anderson’s films tend to have the quality of grotesque and unnatural excrescences, all the more so here in contrast to the wooded crags and rocky streams of the inner island. Sam, a misfit despised by his fellow scouts and disowned by his foster parents, is a master of camping skills, adept with map and compass. Crossing a field in a coonskin cap as he steals away from Camp Ivanhoe—while on the soundtrack Hank Williams sings his tragic ballad of the lovelorn wooden Indian Kaw-Liga—he seems like the perfect embodiment of the values imparted by, say, Fess Parker as Davy Crockett, except that he has arrived too late.
Suzy, who alternates between immersion in young adult novels about magical orphans and violent outbursts against her parents and her schoolmates, carries the modern world (the movie is set in 1965) with her in the form of a portable record player and a single Françoise Hardy recording. (The alternation, throughout the film, of the music of Britten, Williams, and Hardy, along with a stirring original score by Alexandre Desplat, is not incidental but central to its meanings.)
Sam and Suzy are inventing the world as they go along, word by word and gesture by gesture. Anderson’s anti-naturalism here becomes precisely the only convincingly naturalistic way to express the love story he has imagined. The stylized dialogue in which his characters tend to address each other—and which some viewers have always found wincingly mannered—has never seemed more appropriate than as a lingua franca for alienated twelve-year-olds who, on top of everything else, must invent a way to communicate with each other. Each brings a certain amount of special knowledge and a certain number of sacred childhood objects to the process, and the extraordinary care with which they negotiate these transfers of information is a measure of how much they care.
Their tentative dance down by the cove to the music of the portable record player is a scene of tenderhearted and melancholy intelligence, all the more so for being at the center of what is, after all, a comedy, and at times a broad one. The boisterousness of the film’s finale, with its sieges and rescues, its lightning bolts and flash floods, relieves what would otherwise be an almost unbearably sad evocation of what is least preservable about youthful experience: not so much the loss of that “innocence” that is such a hackneyed motif of modern American culture (and for which summer camps have always been a favored location) but the awakening of the first radiance of mature intelligence in a world liable to be indifferent or hostile to it, an intelligence that can conceive everything and realize only the tiniest fragment of it.
The respect that Anderson has for his young characters is the essence of Moonrise Kingdom, a film that finds a path through material that in other hands would more likely have sunk into a morass of sentimentality. But then pathfinding is the film’s central action. Sam earns his coonskin cap by turning the island’s creeks and woods into a heroic landscape. The inevitable question is what world or life he could possibly be in training for. None that exists, any more than the worlds of which Suzy reads in her beloved fantasy novels. The books and their cover art are artifacts created for the film, like so many of the objects in Anderson’s work. He shares with Jacques Tati and with few contemporaries I can think of the desire to build everything, even the most ordinary objects, afresh.
To create a world where everything looks newly made is part of the great adventurousness of his work, and in Moonrise Kingdom the effect, by juxtaposition, is to make even the rocks and creeks look new. It is perhaps the only setting in which Sam and Suzy could begin to articulate their goal: “To go on adventures and not get stuck in one place.”
This piece is adapted from an essay that originally appeared in the September 27, 2012, issue of the New York Review of Books.