Review: Moonrise Kingdom

A belated review of Moonrise Kingdom, with justification.

Creative Commons photo by Wolf Gang. Source: Flickr

Saturday was balmy for mid-September, and as I walked to the T for an out-of-character matinee at the Kendall Square Cinema (R.I.P., Harvard Square Theatre), I tilted my face towards the sun and blinking, acknowledged my last day of summer. I was off to see Moonrise Kingdom, hipster director Wes Anderson’s May release about a boy and a girl in summertime on an island off the coast of 1960s New England. The indie Kendall Square Cinema carries older releases the way it carries organic sweet potato tots, but my choice of Moonrise Kingdom was deliberate. After a summer spent on campus in the warm painted lawn chairs and dense green grass of the Yard, the fall forecast of Sundays with schoolbooks in Widener was unpalatable. I enlisted Moonrise Kingdom, then, as a final taste of summer.

The first thing anyone should say about Moonrise Kingdom is yellow. The film is yellow from its credits written in a curlicued lemon cursive across faded polaroid-palette landscapes, to the Naples yellow traveling suitcase, to the mustard brown Khaki Scout uniforms and tents that dot the parched grass of the summer camp from which our hero, the orphaned and “emotionally disturbed” Sam Shakusky, escapes. As Anderson’s playful and particular lens moves with Sam and his equally troubled young love, Suzy Bishop, over bright forests, breezy fields, and rocky beaches across the island of New Penzance to the accompaniment of a half-classical, half-American blues soundtrack with a French new wave twist, it becomes clear that the film’s high saturation is more than confirmation of the director’s signature color aesthetic. Rather, the muted yellow melding with the sixties costuming and props is the cue for the nostalgia that sets the movie’s emotional tone. This is not, however, just nostalgia for a decade often fetishized (though Anderson does not resist the temptation to indulge). It is also nostalgia for childhood, for lost love, for curiosity, and for the certain kind of wholesome American summer no one’s ever actually had but everyone misses.

The film proper opens with quintessentially “Andersonian” symmetrical shots of the rooms in the Bishop’s red cliffside lighthouse, “Summer’s End.” Bedrooms, stairwells, and cozy nooks livened with pops of retro color are framed as puppet theaters, the doorframes acting as box walls and the rooms becoming the stage. Members of the Bishop family move from stage to stage to the sound of a children’s Leonard Bernstein record, and as the sequence’s final shot frames a playroom with Suzy reading on a window ledge and her three brothers listening to the record player on the floor, nostalgia for lazy summertime childhood is established.

By our introduction to Camp Ivanhoe, a neat double row of pitched tents, lanyards, casual weaponry, and precariously perched tree houses, Anderson plantis false memories of boyhood at a wilderness summer camp in our brains. The Khaki Scouts are cast as a group of comically serious twelve-year old boys neatly regimented by the wonderfully earnest Scout Master Ward (a scout master first and a math teacher second!), played by Edward Norton. Leading the Scouts on a search party around the island in his adult-size scout shorts, yellow neckerchief, and park ranger’s hat, Norton is the film’s own stand-in for our desire to stay in childhood summers.

His character is the adult who contributes most to the “precious” nostalgia the movie employs, to use the adjective often derisively applied to Anderson’s films. In Moonrise Kingdom, however, the “preciousness” of emotional sincerity and an idiosyncratic aesthetic is perfectly justified by the film’s adept balance of humor and sadness. The humor ranges from laugh-out-loud moments of absurdity, to the bureaucratic obliviousness of Tilda Swinton as Social Services and the gum-chomping assholery of Jason Schwartzman’s Camp Lebanon canteen master, to the subtle wit of Anderson’s shot framing. There is humor in the character’s sadness as well; Bill Murray makes Mr. Bishop’s mid-life crisis endearingly ludicrous and poignant, and Bruce Willis is surprisingly amusing as the also lovelorn island police chief whose affair with the tightly-wound Ms. Bishop is ending.

Moonrise Kingdom’s real pull, however, comes from its two child leads. Slate Magazine’s Forrest Wickman contextualizes the movie in terms of a Peanuts special, with the awkward Sam (Jared Gilman) as a stand-in for the preternaturally serious Charlie Brown, and Suzy (Kara Hayward) traipsing about the island in an outfit identical to the Little Red-Haired Girl’s. The honesty with which these friendless twelve-year olds fall in love is disarmingly intense, but also sweet, and the pivotal scene on the beach filmed in highly saturated and too-close slow motion is at once more innocent, more joyful, more dangerous, and more heart-wrenching than any other moment in the film. Gilman and Hayward’s chemistry is mostly silent, but as they move from awkward pen pals to deeply attached allies in adventure, their silence shows their mutual, strangely adult and innocent confidence in each other, and the heart aches to remember a similar feeling.

Although Moonrise Kingdom has particular aesthetic elements designed to tug on every nostalgic string in our bodies, it is not a mere mood piece but rather a fully developed fable of childhood summers. It invokes nostalgia as a conduit to real emotion, and the characters that emerge from its visual and narrative absurdity are emotionally real as well. I went to the movies last Saturday hoping it would be a compact thirty-first of August, a chance to soak in enough warmth to last through the first snows of Reading Period. Thus far, I’m pleased to report that it’s worked.

Meghan Brooks ’16 (meghanbrooks@college) is finally a Wes Anderson convert.

  • Sadie Heldberg

    Thanks for the review Meghan. It’s great to read an
    intelligent, but also positive review. I’ve always been a fan of movies that
    can fill me with the bittersweet feeling of nostalgia. Emotionally, I’m
    rendered helpless as I slide from one end of the spectrum to the other. I’ve
    heard that in addition to the color yellow, the whole movie is a colorful amazement.
    I’ve read that some feel that Anderson
    was influenced by Kubrick, who’s passing I still mourn. I haven’t seen it yet
    and don’t want to spoil it for myself, so I haven’t read to much of the story,
    but coworkers of mine from DISH have said this is exactly the type of movie I’ll
    love. That gets me excited, especially when I combine the idea of a Kubrick
    style film with the vivid colors I’ve read about, so naturally I want my own
    copy of Moonrise Kingdom but if I bought every movie I wanted I’d go broke. I’m
    renting it from my Blockbuster @Home service, which is more practical for me
    and saves me a lot money. When it arrives in a couple of days, I look forward
    to watching such a wondrous movie and experiencing the array of emotions I’m
    sure I’ll feel.