Review: Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

Personally, I found Moonrise Kingdom to be an exceedingly quirky movie–meaning I’ve never seen a Wes Anderson film before.  Everything from the camera work to the colors conspires together to create a surrealistic postmodern fairy tale, both beautiful and odd.

For those who want to know: why the PG-13 rating?  Unlike even some PG movies these days, there is no actual nudity; the awkwardness of preteen sexual exploration, however, is briefly and frankly portrayed.  It makes perfect sense in the context of the story, as the two young protagonists try to create their own “marriage” of sorts.  But parents may find the moment awkward, unless they’re willing to have an open discussion with their kids.

The film plays out on the fictional New England isle of New Penzance.  It’s 1965.  Sam (Jared Gilman) is an orphan who deserts the Khaki Scout troop to which his foster parents have sent him.  (Envision a prepubescent Garrison Keillor in a coonskin cap.)  Suzy (Kara Hayward) is a young girl who views the world through binoculars and sees all, including the disaffection between her parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand).  Having packed a suitcase full of adventure stories, she runs away from home to rendezvous with Sam.

The children rely upon Sam’s outdoorsmanship to create their own private kingdom on a deserted beach: two refugees from dysfunctional families trying to figure out the meaning of commited relationship.  At one point, Suzy muses that because of her crazy parents, she sometimes wishes that she were an orphan, like Sam.  He flatly replies, “I love you, but you don’t know what you’re talking about.”  Suzy’s blue eyes widen slightly: “I love you too,” she offers back.

Ah, the innocence of young love.

Eventually, of course, the children are found, and the rest of the film hangs on the question of what will happen to their relationship.  A tragic ending threatens along with the storm that batters the island.

Others consider the children emotionally disturbed, but it’s clear that they inhabit a world of troubled adults.  Scoutmaster Ward (Edward Norton) is a well-meaning man who seems out of his depth, marching purposefully through a daily parody of scouting.  To relieve his distress, Suzy’s dad grabs a bottle and an axe, going out in his pajamas to chop down a tree.  His perpetually harried wife communicates to the family through a bullhorn, and is having a vague liaison with Police Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis).  A nameless bureaucrat (Tilda Swinton) who refers to herself only as “Social Services” coldly bullies those around her to take custody of Sam, while a venerated scout leader (Harvey Keitel) acts like the reincarnation of Patton.

Against that background, Sam and Suzy seem naive but normal, even heroic.  By the end of the film, their determination to stay together will change the others around them–children and adults alike–in small but important ways.

From a Christian standpoint, what’s interesting is Anderson’s use of biblical metaphor.   Sam and Suzy meet during a children’s church pageant built around the story of Noah.  Foreshadowing later events, Sam sneaks away from his scout troop to explore, meeting Suzy by accident as he happens into a dressing room where several children are awaiting their turn onstage.  Their exchange is stilted and brief, but their eyes lock with a sense of shared destiny.

The film’s climax returns them to the same church a year later.  The Noah pageant has been cancelled to transform the church into a place of shelter during the most violent storm in the island’s history.  That context makes Sam and Suzy’s relationship almost mythic: what, if anything, of their embattled relationship will survive the storm?

It is, of course, just a metaphor.  The storm that floods New Penzance doesn’t wash away a sinful world; there is no divine covenant.  But in the end, everyone’s oddness seems a little less odd and a little more normal.  There is an air of hope and redemption in the ordinary and extraordinary heroism prompted by the crisis.  That is, after all, how it goes sometimes with broken relationships: incremental attempts at change go nowhere, and only being tossed together into a flood will do.

Moonrise Kingdom is not the gospel, but we can learn from it.  There are people we consider to be peculiar or troublemakers because we’ve taken our own peculiarity for granted.  We resent their questioning of the way things are, their audacity in trying to find a way of their own.

But to borrow from the King James, we are ourselves called to be a “peculiar people” (1 Pet 2:9), meaning a people possessed by God.  That brings its own oddness in this world.  We need to cultivate that self-understanding.

Otherwise, it may take a storm to jolt us into seeing what’s right.