Sam and Suzy are in love. They may only be 12 years old, and they may have only met once, backstage at a church production of a Noah's Ark, but they believe in their love passionately. So does Wes Anderson, who focuses his new film Moonrise Kingdom around Sam and Suzy, their scheme to run away together and the community of kids and adults who band together to find the runaways, all while a hurricane comes bearing down on their fictional New England home of New Penzance Island.
I just wish I believed in Sam and Suzy as much as everybody else does. Moonrise Kingdom is Anderson's second explicitly child-scaled film after The Fantastic Mr. Fox, but instead of puppets this time he has two child actors (Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman) who aren't quite as capable of capturing the repressed emotions and inner turmoil that mark most of Anderson's characters. We see in expertly detailed, pocket-sized flashbacks that Suzy and Sam are both troubled, Suzy fighting constantly with her family and Sam suffering from having none, but their performances betray none of that. When they finally meet up and venture off into the woods together, the details of their courtship-- the stolen library fantasy books Suzy brings along, jumping together into the chilly ocean, Suzy allowing Sam to get to second base-- are true and tender. But while it's easy to hearken back to your own first flushes of 12-year-old romance, it's much harder to connect with Sam and Suzy's, or feel the urgency for these two kids to find what makes them happy.
While Sam and Suzy act out their adolescent affair, there's a lot happening on New Penzance Island, both among the bevy of adult actors and Anderson's own flair for handling a lot of characters with grace and singular wit. Edward Norton gives the film's best performance as the beleaguered Scout Master Ward, whom we meet taking his Khaki Scouts through rigorous morning inspections, and who incrementally starts falling apart when Sam runs away and the Khaki Scout Commander Pierce (Harvey Keitel) openly doubts Ward's ability to fix it. For as purposeful as Sam and Suzy are in their love, every adult in the movie is adrift-- the police chief (Bruce Willis) is lonely and carrying on a dead-end affair with Suzy's mom (Frances McDormand), whose relationship with her husband (Bill Murray) is so stiff and sour he lies in bed and wishes for the roof to fly off and suck him out into space.
Making her way to the island is also a woman in a crisp blue suit who identifies herself only as Social Services (Tilda Swinton), ready to take Sam to the youth refuge home now that his foster family has shoved him off. Swinton, impossible as it seems, doesn't get to make much of an impact, and Murray's character also gets sidelined, but the other grown-ups imbue their characters with pathos and regret, the kind of world-weariness that the kids only think they understand. Seeing Suzy's mom attempt a heart to heart, or the police chief sneak Sam a little bit of beer at a lonely dinner, draws a devastating line from the quiet discontent of adolescents to truly broken adults. The well-rounded performances from Norton, McDormand and Willis make that heartbreak all the clearer, giving Moonrise Kingdom the melancholy edge that always provides ballast for Anderson's wordy humor and visual flourishes.
Anderson's movies, with the arch dialogue and thicket of influences worn on its sleeve, can have a way of holding the audience at a distance-- I confess that on first viewing of The Fantastic Mr. Fox, which I now love, I missed a lot of its ragged charm. It's entirely possible that Moonrise Kingdom will have the same effect, and in thinking back to the moments that worked best, I find myself more smitten than I was in the theater. With lots of good jokes and very funny child actors, plus adults who carry the emotional weight the children cannot, Moonrise Kingdom has elements that hold up to the best of what Anderson has done-- but it's also a little too busy, and a little too fussy to properly explore its main characters, to coalesce into an affecting whole.