England was the locale of our favorite books and movies and television shows, and since we already spoke the language better than anyone we knew, England was our destination. Meticulously she researched everything we would need to know and copied it all out on notebook paper — because in those prehistoric days we had no access to a Xerox machine. Somehow other friends decided to join us, and so she kept copying her notes.
I still think the title sounds like the name of a Chinese restaurant.
It’s a wonder we never left home. We were ready! And yet the closest we came was to dream — and, for my part, to write down the dream, in a spiral notebook. I added some drama (we were forced to flee when I got into an altercation with our English teacher, who pursued us like Javert across the sea), and I overflowed with jokes and intrigues among our little gang of fugitives. I even hinted at the romance I yearned for, with a moonlight scene in which the girl and I almost said what we felt. Because of course that’s what would happen, if only other people would just let us alone.
This was the first and perhaps only truly popular fiction I ever wrote. Our friends passed the notebook around, and eventually it fell into the hands of that English teacher. She called my mother for a Very Serious Conference, and that settled it: there would be no escape.
Wes Anderson’s new movie, Moonrise Kingdom, comes closer than any other work I’ve yet encountered to capturing that barely-adolescent spirit. I recommend it highly — and so, for that matter, does the girl I loved.
I’m not a diehard Anderson fan, and some of his greatest successes have struck me as belabored in the extreme: sometimes he tries so hard to be quirky. But he’s at his best here, or close to it, and it’s easier for this audience to accept the quirkiness of smart, troubled 12-year-olds than to accept that of, say, grownup Gwyneth Paltrow in The Royal Tenenbaums.
And the opening sequence of Moonrise Kingdom even manages to recall a film I thoroughly admired, Anderson’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox, as the camera roams around a family home that looks like a dollhouse. Even the scout camp reminded me of Mr. Fox: the boys’ uniforms are too small, and as a result they’re even more awkward than other boys that age. They’re all gangling limbs and stiff movements, like stop-action characters.
Young Sam (Jared Gilman) meets the love of his young life, Suzy (Kara Hayward), appropriately enough when he wanders away from a group. Rather like Romeo and Juliet, but decidedly less talkative, Sam and Suzy need only one look to seal their destiny. They write to each other, pour out their troubles and console each other, and soon enough it’s clear: they’ll have to run away.
In the woods and waters of an outrageously picturesque New England island, Sam puts his scouting skills to good use: here I realized that I had no such skills whatever, and it’s unclear to me now just how I would have contributed, if my friends and I really had run away. (Complete recall of Monty Python sketches — my greatest strength — is not a survival tactic.) Meanwhile, Suzy reads stories aloud, much like Wendy in Peter Pan.
The grownups on the island are a dysfunctional lot, as we’ve come to expect in an Anderson picture, and they’re thoroughly incapable of holding onto these kids. Suzy’s parents are brilliantly portrayed by Bill Murray (an Anderson regular) and the great Frances McDormand, two actors who understand the value of economy and restraint amid the Andersonian wildness. As the police captain, Bruce Willis reminds me what a good actor he is when he gets out of his own way and finds the character he’s supposed to play.
Edward Norton projects a wonderful earnestness as the scoutmaster, and Bob Balaban is the all-knowing, sometimes participatory Narrator. Tilda Swinton and Harvey Keitel turn in amusing cameos as the most self-serious people on the planet.
The movie’s only serious misstep is Cousin Ben, another scoutmaster played by Anderson’s muse, Jason Schwartzman, as if the director (and perhaps the actor himself) channeled all their annoying tics into one character, rather than spreading them across the entire movie. Cousin Ben practically screams, “Love me! I’m a half-crazed manchild eccentric, just like dozens of others you’ll see in a Wes Anderson picture!” But fortunately the movie doesn’t linger over him.
The young scouts and Suzy’s brothers, terribly serious boys all of them, are given appealing portrayals by a group of terrific young actors. I expect this was a fun set to work on. Gilman isn’t one of those terrific young actors, and you never shake the feeling that he’s only reciting his lines. But those lines aren’t easy — in truth, nobody on earth really talks like an Anderson character — and Gilman does convey a kind of nascent manliness that’s essential to the picture. Hayward is the more skillful actor, and she’s uncannily beautiful besides.
Mention must be made of the soundtrack, which uses a phenomenal amount of Benjamin Britten’s music, including scenes from Noye’s Fludde, in counterpoint to a climactic hurricane; and a passage from another great runaway story, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. There’s also a classic hit from Françoise Hardy, “Le Temps de l’Amour,” to which Sam and Suzy dance, and the lyrics (in French) could hardly find a better match than this story, or mine:
It’s the time of love, the time of friends and adventure.
When time comes and goes, we think of nothing, despite our wounds,
Since the time of love is long and it’s short.
It lasts forever, we remember it.
NOTE: Clearly, Anderson has done his homework, with references to all sorts of runaway stories. While I don’t see any overt reference to one of the very greatest of these, E.L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, I do note that the mean boys in the scout camp develop emotionally much as the mean girls do in the summer camp in Konigsburg’s The Outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place. A coincidence, perhaps, but pleasing.