What is childhood if not an island cut off from the grown-up world around it, and what is first love if not a secret cove known only to the two parties caught in its spell? While no less twee than Wes Anderson’s earlier pictures, “Moonrise Kingdom” supplies a poignant metaphor for adolescence itself, in which a universally appealing tale of teenage romance cuts through the smug eccentricity and heightened artificiality with which Anderson has allowed himself to be pigeonholed. A prestigious opening-night slot at Cannes lends luster to Focus’ May 25 release, but not enough to grow his audience.
While Anderson is essentially a miniaturist, making dollhouse movies about meticulously appareled characters in perfectly appointed environments, each successive film finds him working on a more ambitious scale. Co-written by Roman Coppola, “Moonrise Kingdom” may not be set anywhere so exotic as a Mediterranean boat (“The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou”) or a trans-Indian train (“The Darjeeling Limited”), but it feels even more finely detailed than any of his previous live-action outings. Still, the love story reads loud and clear, charming those not put off by all the production’s potentially distracting ornamentation.
Newcomer Kara Hayward plays Suzy, who lives in an overstuffed lighthouse on the East Coast island of New Penzance with three younger brothers and two immature-acting parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand). She has captured the heart of Sam (Jared Gilman, also making his bigscreen debut), a 12-year-old orphan and the outcast of his Khaki Scout troop (the other members of which all blur together, hardly distinguishable beyond the varying beige shades of their uniforms).
Sam first spotted Suzy the summer before, and the two have been pen pals ever since, plotting to run away from their not-uncomfortable normal lives in order to spend a week or so roughing it together. While Sam endearingly draws upon the wilderness survival tactics taught by his troop’s otherwise irresponsible Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton, looking his most boyish), Suzy proves somewhat less practical, packing several hardcover library books, a battery-powered record player and her pet kitten for the adventure.
Opposite Sam’s ugly duckling, Suzy is already a swan: She listens to French pop and paints her eyes a la Sophia Loren, suggesting the type of girl who’d be running with leather-jacket high-school boys in real life, rather than indulging an awkward, nearsighted daydreamer. And yet Sam, like “Rushmore’s” Max Fischer before him, lacks nothing in self-confidence, rendered all the more hilarious by Gilman’s comical seriousness and slight speech impediment. By contrast, Hayward conveys both intelligence and poise, reminding that young ladies mature faster than boys.
Anderson recently told the New York Times that the girl who inspired Suzy’s character was never even aware of his affections, and that explains a lot. “Moonrise Kingdom” is nothing if not a nostalgic fantasy-reinvention of first love, transposed to 1965 (a fact supplied by Bob Balaban, who doubles as both the pic’s narrator and its most sartorially silly-looking character). Despite the absurdly all-American backdrop, the film reveals a particularly French influence in its use of composer Alexandre Desplat’s sprightly instrumentations and its admirably non-patronizing approach toward adolescents, which recalls the precocious protags of Louis Malle’s “Murmur of the Heart” and “Zazie in the Metro.”
Throughout, the picture retains Anderson’s signature aesthetic: Whether dollying through the rooms of Suzy’s house squarely on-axis or peering straight forward from the bow of Sam’s canoe, the wide-angle 16mm lensing effectively places everything, including outdoor shots, within an artificial proscenium, the camera remaining fixed except for the occasional 90-degree whip pan.
This carefully orchestrated dynamic runs counter to most lovers-on-the-lam movies, where naturalistic acting and handheld cinematography typically enhance the outlaw spirit. In this case, Anderson’s stylized approach masks the young actors’ inexperience, while embracing a familiar genre to draw auds in to Sam and Suzy’s runaway escapade. As his fellow Khaki Scouts organize a search party and her parents enlist the local police captain (a ridiculous-looking Bruce Willis), the couple have few hideout options from which to choose on such a small island.
Eventually, they find a quiet beach, generically labeled “Mile 3.25 Tidal Inlet,” and claim it as their own. Thanks to an approaching hurricane, this secret spot will soon exist only in their memories. Naturally, the storm coincides with an elaborate and rather tiresome third-act chase involving Social Services (Tilda Swinton), the Khaki Scouts’ humorless commanding officer (Harvey Keitel) and a dose of weak dramatic irony in the form of a church-theater production of “Noye’s Fludde.”
For the jejune duo, the whole adventure brings their first wave of adult problems; one suspects they will soon long for the days when their troubles could be contained someplace as charmed as New Penzance. In the meantime, “Moonrise Kingdom” represents a sort of non-magical Neverland — that momentous instant when the world can seem so small and a naive crush can feel all-consuming.