“I got hit in the mirror,” eleven-year-old Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) tells Sam, a Khaki Scout, when they meet in Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom. “I lost my temper at myself.” The movie, an exploration of an island off the coast of New England and the people who live there, is a mirror picking up all sorts of flashes and themes from Anderson’s work. But it’s also a reflection that’s kinder to one of Anderson’s earlier characters than Suzy is to herself: Moonrise Kingdom is, to a certain extent, a story about a young Margot Tenenbaum.
Anderson’s live-action movies are obsessed with children who have lost their parents, whether to death or misadventure. In Rushmore, private school boy Max Fischer is motherless, and renders his true father non-existent with lies and exaggerations. Margot Tenenbaum is adopted, the source of her discontent in The Royal Tenenbaums, while her childhood neighbor and grown-up lover Eli Cash wants to replace his family with hers. Steve Zissou, the narcissistic oceanic explorer in The Life Acquatic is the reverse, a parent who has lost his child only to be found out by the young man. The brothers in The Darjeeling Limited are mourning the death of their father.
Moonrise Kingdom features a real orphan and a metaphorical one. Sam (Jared Gilman), a Khaki Scout whose flight from summer camp mobilizes the residents of a New England island to search for him, is living in a large foster home, a fact that’s evaded Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton), who is supposed to be looking after him. Suzy, the doll in this particular Andersonian dollhouse, down to her matching dress and saddle shoes, which are color-coordinated to her house and school bus stop, is lost in her own family. The discover of a volume entitled Coping With the Very Troubled Child on top of the refrigerator is one of the reasons Suzy decided to make a break for it, heading off into the woods with Sam armed with a portable record player and a collection of young adult novels (“Usually I prefer a girl hero,” she explains to Sam, “but not always.”).The story of how Sam and Suzy met, a year before their trek into the woods, both presages the storm that will hit the island and reads as an alternate history of Margot’s life. Sam spots her at a church pageant retelling the story of Noah and the Flood, sneaking through a parade of children dressed up as animals and into the girls’ dressing room to ask Suzy “what kind of bird are you?” She’s a raven, and her surprise in being noticed is quietly marvelous. It’s as if before Royal shattered Margot’s confidence by asking her, after a play she put on for her birthday, “What characters? This is a bunch of little kids dressed up in animal costumes,” she met the love of her life off-screen in an off-screen scene The Royal Tenenbaums. While that movie narrated Margot’s escapes from the house on Archer Avenue with a series of formally composed by detached brief flashbacks, Moonrise Kingdom is dedicated to exploring early tastes of independence from the perspective of the children who are claiming their freedom.
The great gift of Moonrise Kingdom is the seriousness with which it’s willing to treat Sam and Suzy’s imaginations and adventures. Just as The Royal Tenenbaums presents Chas’s fire drills or Margo and Richie’s escape to the tent as genuine responses to deeply traumatic circumstances worthy of respect and consideration, or Rushmore helped Max Fischer grow up without treating him as if he was fundamentally ridiculous, Moonrise Kingdom has a profound empathy for its characters that hasn’t been as well-balanced with the precocious elements of Anderson’s other movies. When Sam runs away, Ward finds that “he left me a letter of resignation,” treating the note with the same regard with which Sam presumably wrote it. And when Laura undercovers Suzy’s cache of correspondence and tells Walter, Ward, and Sharp that “She has a pen pal. It’s very intimate. They planned this together,” she’s not being condescending. She sees the depth of Suzy’s feelings, even if Suzy feels profoundly misunderstood.
The conversations between Suzy and Sam as they hike through the woods to an inlet so remote it has a number rather than a name may seem precious, but they’re framed as two young people figuring out their moral and sensual universes. When Sam discover that Suzy’s absconded with library books that are about to be overdue, he asks her “Do you steal? Why? You’re not poor?” Later, she muses “I sometimes wish I was an orphan. All my favorite characters are,” only to have Sam tell her, “I love you, but you don’t know what you’re talking about.” In their first, clumsy physical contacts, Sam says that he thinks he can French kiss, but checks “Is there any secret to it?” “The tongues touch each other,” Suzy tells him in a gently funny display of naivete: they’re discovering the mechanics of sexuality, but they’re years away from the mystery. There’s a hint of something more, later, when Sam is hit by lighting and kisses Suzy, electricity crackling between their lips.
A similar gentleness is apparent in the scene when Suzy and Sam are discovered the morning after they spent a day painting, reading, and kissing on the beach. Richie and Margot Tenenbaum, the brother and sister by adoption, know that they’ve sought refuge in — to steal a phrase from Steve Martin’s Shopgirl — “a temporary and poorly constructed heaven” when they confess their painful love for each other in a conversation that takes place in a pup tent pitched inside their childhood home. The best Margot can promise Richie is to tell him: “I think we’re just going to have to be secretly in love with each other and leave it at that.”
Sam and Suzy have more confidence that they’ve made their escape, thanks to the negligence of Suzy’s parents Laura (Frances McDormand) — who is having an affair with island police Captain Sharp (a wonderfully melancholy Bruce Willis) — and Walter (Bill Murray) and Sam’s wilderness skills. But even though Scout Master Ward tells Sam after they’re caught that “I wish we had time to do an inspection back there on the beach. I would have given you a commendable. That was one of the best-pitched campsites I’ve ever seen,” his skills don’t stop Walter from marching up to the tent Sam and Suzy and lifting it up over their heads, revealing the runaway children. Adulthood, it seems, is making the most conservative estimate of what sort of storms your shelter can hold up to.
And childhood is trying again, even in the face of overwhelming odds. After Sam and Suzy are caught and returned home, Suzy to her parents, Sam to the custody of Captain Sharp, it seems they might be successfully separated. Over dinner in his trailer, Sharp tells Sam, “I can’t argue against anything you’re saying. But I don’t have to. You’re twelve years old.” And the movie shifts temporarily to Laura, who has told Sharp she can’t see him anymore because “I have to do better. For everybody,” and Walter. She apologizes to him. “It’s not your fault,” he tells her. “What injuries are you apologizing for, specifically.” “Whichever ones still hurt,” Laura tells him. “Half of those were self-inflicted,” Walter almost, but not quite, absolves her. In Walter’s brokenness, his insistence that his children aren’t enough to keep him from wishing he could be swept away by a storm bearing down on the island, we can see the harm a careless, self-centered Royal will do to a young Margot without even being aware of it.
But adult indolence creates an opportunity, as well as a change of heart by Sam’s fellow Khaki Scouts. While previously they scorned him as an oddball, looking at their search for the runaway as a chance to do violence against him in case he resists, the revelation that he’s an orphan and liable to be remanded into the care of Social Services (Tilda Swinton, in a swish blue uniform) who may lock him away in a psych ward, causes them to come around. “He needs our help,” declares one of the Khaki Scouts. “Are we man enough to give that to him so part of his brain isn’t removed out of him?” Sam and Suzy make a run for it twice more, aided by a deeply disreputable older scout named Ben (Jason Schwartzman), a tennis ball can full of nickles bestowed on them by the Scouts as a grubstake for their future, and a tremendous storm that gives them cover.
The movie eventually reaches a compromise between Sam and Suzy and their elders, but the impact of their adventure is permanent. Sam makes Suzy earrings out of sleek black-green beetles and fishhooks, piercing her ears with them: after the pain of the first one, as blood runs down her neck, Suzy tells him “do the other one.” It’s the closest the movie comes to a loss of virignity. Later, Laura wonders how she’ll get the earrings out — because they’re barbed hooks, they would tear up Suzy’s ears if she tried to get them out through the holes. And at the end of the movie, Suzy’s switched into a yellow dress that doesn’t match her home, no longer a doll constrained by her family home and their perception of her. And she’s still wearing the earrings. Her mother seems to have recognized that trying to erase the evidence of Suzy’s maturity might do more damage than good. And Suzy’s shining with the spiky beauty of her experience.