There’s almost nothing in Wes Anderson’s latest film, Moonrise Kingdom, that isn’t in his earlier ones, and that’s not a bad thing. The movie is packed with whimsical details of a world not quite like ours; it’s immaculately framed and shot by Robert D. Yeoman, who’s worked on every one of Anderson’s films; it’s laced with dry wit, oddly hilarious turns of phrase, and awkward boys and girls trying to figure out how to escape becoming their parents. Maps are drawn. Records are played. You get the idea. Anderson is a writer and director who knows what he wants to do, and how he wants to do it, and he’s spent most of the past two decades working toward a state of creative focus and grace that make themselves known in every frame of his most recent film. He’s moved through the cockiness of youth and into a calmer, more measured approach without sacrificing any of the stylistic flair that defines him. In other words, for all his love of dysfunctional children, he’s grown up.
Anderson’s so comfortable with himself and sure of what he wants to do that it would be easy to dismiss his work out of hand. Filmmakers with heightened senses of style and narrative are always fighting a losing battle: If they do something different, they’ve lost their touch, but if they do something similar, they’re in a rut. Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, and other major directors deal with this all the time. It’s nonsense, but it’s also somewhat understandable. We want a big talent’s new movie to be just familiar enough that we recognize it but just different enough (whatever that would mean) that we can recognize something new, and we want to equate that newness with an increase in quality. Yet to write off Anderson simply for making good movies and doing it in his own way means missing out on a film full of quiet pleasures, smart comedy, and genuine heart. Moonrise Kingdom feels familiar to Anderson’s other movies, stylistically and emotionally, but it’s because it shares with those movies a sense of wonder about the world, of a bruised kindness doing its best to find order in the chaos of relationships.
The latest in Anderson’s series of awkwardly maturing boys is Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman), a child who finds himself ostracized from the rest of his Khaki Scout Troop on New Penzance Island in the summer of 1965. He’s weird, wiry, and prone to fighting, and he’s found a soulmate in Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward), a young girl branded an outcast and discipline case by her family. It’s their journey to be together that drives the story, as they spend much of the film running away and leading their respective caregivers on an elaborate chase around the island, but Anderson’s more interested in the mirrored relationships among the characters than in any real life-or-death stakes. (Though it’s a credit to his storytelling that some of those more suspenseful scenes totally work.) Suzy isn’t just a rebellious young girl: she’s the fractured image of her father, Walt (Bill Murray), and her intractability matches his step for step. Likewise, Sam finds a counterpoint in Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), head of the local island police. It’s Sharp’s duty to find Sam and Suzy when they’re discovered to have escaped, and the older man shares a warped sense of duty and romantic yearning with the young boy.
Anderson has his characters trace slow elliptical paths around each other, gliding naturally together and apart. There’s a quiet certitude to the film, though. Anderson doesn’t rush anything, and he sure doesn’t force moments to be grander than they are. He’s found a nice balance between his typical presentational flair and the knowledge that less is often so much more, and the result is a surprisingly strong, nimble film that’s among his better ones. The child actors are dependable, if not stellar, though their stilted delivery works better with Anderson’s subtext-as-text blurts of adolescent feeling than it would with just about anything else. They have moments of genuine resonance, though. Gilman feels plucked from the weird ether that seems to form boys like this across North America, while Hayward sits perfectly on the edge between childhood and the hell of teenage femininity. By the end of the film, their relationship feels like a tangible thing, which is no mean feat for performers of any age.
The composition of the film is a little more inviting than some of Anderson’s other films, too, if no less practiced or planned. He’s scaled back from the 2.35:1 ratio of much of his films to the less wide 1.85:1 palette he used in Bottle Rocket and Fantastic Mr. Fox, and he and Yeoman have crafted a gorgeous film that relies on natural yellows, browns, and greens. He’s also jettisoned Futura, his preferred typeface, for an original one marked by curlicues and ornate loops, both old-fashioned and pleasing. It’s a warm-looking film, and Anderson nicely plays between the organic tones of Sam and Suzy’s island escapade with the harsher primary colors of the adult world around them (red houses, white walls, jet-black cars). He gives enough attention to detail that the little touches all blend together smoothly. This is not his first rodeo.
More than anything, Moonrise Kingdom finds Anderson returning to the conflict that must haunt his soul: the battle between the fantasy we wish we lived in and the reality we can’t escape. The characters in the film are caught between these worlds with no clear way to reconcile them, though that doesn’t mean they don’t try. In a lot of ways, they succeed, too. Anderson’s always liked these little moments of reconciliation and humility, but they feel here sweeter than usual, more enjoyed once earned. When Sam and Suzy cling to each other, or when Walt and his wife (Frances McDormand) mourn the self-inflicted wounds of a rocky marriage, or when a beleaguered Captain Sharp extends a hand of friendship to an insecure boy: these are real moments, and they sting with beauty. Moonrise Kingdom calls out to a place we’ve all been but have mostly forgotten — that storm-wracked land between childhood and adult life — and finds Anderson working through familiar problems as only he can. It feels like so much else he’s made because everything he’s made has been wholly his, and we’re lucky enough to be invited on the journey.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. He tweets more often than he should, and he blogs at Slowly Going Bald.