by Joanna Di Mattia
It’s a riddle. Children are in a hurry to grow up. But once we arrive at adulthood, we want to go running, skipping, and jumping back to a more carefree time.
When I was a child I’d think nothing of grabbing my brother and our bikes and riding to the local creek just to throw stones in the water or look for owls. We’d ride back home pretending our bikes were spaceships and we were Star Wars characters preparing for battle. We’d escape the mundane by racing each other to the end of the street, but also by creating new worlds—worlds that extended the finite borders of our leafy suburban existence. I’d do this on my own, too. In the quiet of my room, I’d escape into countless books. I’d lose myself in films, or turn on the radio and dance like I was on MTV. My imagination guided me. It knew no limits.
That’s what children believe adulthood holds for them: complete freedom. Adults want to regress because growing up places a lot of restrictions on those freedoms. Both want what the other has, and both are right.
In Moonrise Kingdom, Wes Anderson sets up a seismic conflict between childhood and adulthood. It’s 1965 in the fictional and very self-contained New England island of New Penzance. Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) and Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) have decided to light out for the horizon together, to escape the misery they experience in their daily lives. They’re both 12, children on the precipice of puberty, and are both in a hurry to grow up. Suzy comes armed with her cat, cat food, a portable battery-operated record player plus extra batteries, and a Françoise Hardy 45. She also has a suitcase filled with her favorite fantasy novels. Sam’s more practical. He brings camping essentials: tent, canoe, rope, and his survival skills.
Cinema often depicts childhood as a time of innocence and wonder. But childhood is also a time of rebellion, and it’s this spirit that most powerfully infuses Anderson’s film. Moonrise Kingdom follows the example of François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959) and Maurice Pialat’s Naked Childhood (1969), in which children break away from the constraints of the world adults delineate for them. Both Sam and Suzy have their own unique conflict with the adult world and push hard against its limitations.
When we first see Sam he’s a Khaki Scout with Troop 55, spending the summer within the regimented confines of Camp Ivanhoe. Despite what Scout Master Randy Ward (Edward Norton) describes as “excellent wilderness skills,” Sam’s ability to fend for himself is curbed by the fact that he is an orphan and an outcast wherever he goes. His foster parents, the Billingsley’s, have decided they can no longer deal with him. Sam is dealing with loss, with the absence of maternal and paternal love that forces him to believe he needs to take control of his own destiny. But even if Sam can take care of himself in the woods—canoeing, catching fish, negotiating rocky terrain and rivers—he still requires, and perhaps unconsciously desires, the love and care of dependable adults.
Suzy’s clash is different. She doesn’t get along with her family, is possibly depressed, has fights with other students at school, and exhibits violent tendencies. Suzy escapes into books and stories “with magic powers in them,” preferably with heroines in whom she can visualize her own liberation. When we first see her, Suzy is posed at a window in her house, looking outside through binoculars. She has a far-reaching vision of the world and her place in it, but she’s also seeking a life elsewhere and is desperate for a connection. As she explains to Sam, her binoculars are like her “magic power;” they help her to “see things closer, even if they’re not very far away.”
Suzy lives with three precocious younger brothers and her parents, Walt and Laura Bishop (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand), in a house called Summer’s End. While Sam suffers from an absence of parental love and guidance, Suzy has parents who keep her—and each other— at a distance. Walt and Laura refer to each other, formally, as “Counselor” and sleep in separate beds. Through her binoculars, Suzy also discovers that her mother is having an affair with the local policeman, Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis). Suzy is estranged from her parents, in part, because they are estranged from each other and she lives in a home emptied of romance and love.
An adventurous spirit allows Sam and Suzy to believe they can escape their confinement and make a new family with each other. Anderson lets them (and, by extension, us) indulge in the essential selfishness of childhood. They leap into the great unknown, aware of the consequences—Sam later tells Captain Sharp they knew they’d get in trouble and probably get caught—but unconcerned with the fallout. There is a greater power than logic at work here: first love. Sam explains to Captain Sharp that when he first met Suzy “something” happened between them that neither of them planned for. Sharp is floored by this insight and eloquence. “I can’t argue against anything you’re saying,” he says, as he fries sausages for Sam’s dinner. “But then again I don’t have to, because you’re 12-years-old.”
In one of the film’s most tender moments, Sam and Suzy dance to the record Suzy has brought with her, Françoise Hardy’s Le temps de l’amour. The song’s opening lines—“It is the time of love, of friends, and adventure”—capture something essential about Sam and Suzy’s story. For while there is love and adventure, what matters most is their friendship, a deep bond that pits the two of them together against the world. After Suzy shows Sam a pamphlet she retrieved from the top of the refrigerator at home, one that has led her to believe she’s a “very troubled child,” Sam nervously laughs, hurting her feelings. But when he apologizes, all he needs to say is, “I’m on your side,” to reassure her. This moment is a brief, perfect encapsulation of their relationship, but also of the friendships we make in our youth, forged on understandings both primal and mysterious.
There is a sense, once Sam and Suzy settle into the cove they name “Moonrise Kingdom,” that they’re just playing at being adults. Suzy wears heavy eye makeup and a sullen expression. She talks of her stolen library books as her “secret,” which makes her feel like a grown-up. Sam smokes a handcrafted pipe as Suzy reads to him by the fire, and plays at romantic gestures, like the bunch of daisies he presents to her when they first meet. He takes on the role of sophisticated, mature artist, with Suzy as his muse. On the beach, they kiss and experience a sexual awakening. Suzy notes, “It feels hard” as they dance closer together. They try French kissing, and Sam touches Suzy’s budding breasts. She reassures him, “I think they are going to grow more.”
Anderson depicts all of this with the utmost sincerity and authenticity. Sam and Suzy’s story is a love story. Viewed through the warm, grainy glow of 16mm film stock, it looks and feels like love, understated, and never played as a joke, even when Sam warns Suzy that he might wet the bed later, which she takes in her stride. Anderson understands that falling in love is serious business. It’s Sam and Suzy’s greatest adventure, and perhaps an adventure that demands a child’s spirit—a willingness to trust, to take risks, to be open, and to move forward with a shared purpose.
Meanwhile, Moonrise Kingdom’s adult inhabitants are mostly a sad, lonely bunch. Each smothers their true feelings, talks in fragments, and seems regulated by responsibilities that drain them of brightness. Anderson uses mise-en-scène to amplify this dissonance. It’s common in his films, from Rushmore (1998) to The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) and The Darjeeling Limited (2007), for children and adults to occupy quite distinct physical as well as emotional worlds, despite a desire to spill over into each other’s spaces. Moonrise Kingdom explicitly visualizes this division in its opening scene. The camera tracks right from its first shot of a framed tapestry of Summer’s End through the inside of the house, moving from one room to the next. Anderson unveils a compartmentalized family, each living separate lives; adults downstairs, children upstairs.
Loneliness defines each of the adult’s lives. Where Sam and Suzy are drawn together out of the same need, the adults are physically and emotionally isolated, stuck in roles that ultimately make them miserable. Most strident among these is Social Services (Tilda Swinton) who represents the worst the adult world has to offer these children—the militaristic rigidity of the state as it looks to place Sam in a juvenile refuge, and possibly administer electroconvulsive therapy. Laura is also regimented, summoning her children downstairs and to the dinner table with the use of a rather bombastic megaphone. She orders Walt to appear in the same way after she discovers that Suzy has run away. But, as we later see, there is more to Laura than this. When Suzy returns home after her first escape, Laura bathes her and attempts to find common ground: “I’ve had moments myself where I say, ‘What am I doing here? Who made this decision? How could I allow myself to do something so stupid?’” Like many adults, Laura feels her life has gone off the rails and isn’t entirely her own anymore.
Anderson’s men are no less remote. Both Scout Master Ward and Captain Sharp lead Spartan lives; their tent and cabin empty spaces that, despite their minimal size threaten to swallow the men whole. Scout Master Ward doesn’t seem to have mastered the art of “adulting.” He cares about his scouts, but he can’t control them, looking on in naive disbelief when he discovers that Sam has flown the coop. Scout Master Ward’s life away from this supervisory role lacks any meaningful connections. Dressed like one of the boys, in short pants and long socks, we visually associate him with them, as if he’s trapped in a perpetual youth. Similarly, Captain Sharp leads a life of overriding disappointment and thwarted opportunities. He loves Laura, but she doesn’t love him back. He drives by her house at night and parks out front in the dark. His vision of the world is curtailed by the repetition of circling New Penzance in his police car, looking for inspiration that never comes. Finally, Walt is exhausted by life, resigned to his cuckolded status. He’s only able to deal with his feelings by drinking directly from a wine bottle, then chopping down a tree. Anderson literally positions Walt looking away from the house, so he doesn’t notice Laura sneaking out to see Captain Sharp, or Suzy running away the second time.
But Anderson doesn’t condemn Walt—or any of the film’s adults. Rather, we feel their disappointments and sadness, and it’s impossible not to empathize with their individual predicaments. Just as he renders the tumultuous experience of growing up with emotional veracity, Anderson is also interested in the messy truth of what happens once you get there. He doesn’t callously condemn the film’s adults; he knows that adulthood presents confusion and uncertainty equal to that experienced during youth.
Sam and Suzy’s adventure sets the world into a spin, exposing the adults’ flaws as parents, as friends, and as lovers. Walt confides in Sharp when Suzy goes missing the first time, “How can we help her? She’s got so many problems. Whose fault is it?” This is reinforced when Laura tells Walt that they need to be better because they are all their children have. But Walt only sees their inadequacies as parents: “It’s not enough.”
But if Moonrise Kingdom begins by suggesting an irredeemable divide between two worlds, it ends by showing us that the borders aren’t as closed as we think. Sam and Suzy’s decision to run away causes a catastrophic storm and the end of summer; a transformation, and a new phase of life for everyone. Out on the roof of the church as they are battered by the storm, all the adults rally to rescue them—and rediscover joy.
Sam and Suzy provide lessons in joyful living, but also in how to care for someone else—they comfort and reassure each other, they assuage each other’s loneliness, they listen without prejudice. Sam and Suzy set off in search of happiness and find it together. It’s a discovery that compels Sharp to act for Sam’s welfare. It also effects a change in Scout Master Ward whose interest in Becky (Marianna Bassham)—the phone operator at the post-office—pays off when we see her photo on his desk at the rebuilt Camp Ivanhoe.
But children also have much to learn from adults. Captain Sharp is correct when he tells Sam to slow down, “It takes time to figure things out.” It’s a warning to pause and enjoy being a child, because it won’t last. “What’s your rush? You’ve got your whole life ahead of you.” It’s advice tinged with Sharp’s own sense of regret.
Moonrise Kingdom’s final sequence returns us to the film’s start, a repeated scene in which the Bishop boys sit enthralled listening to a Benjamin Britten recording, while Suzy sits at her window reading a book. But something is different—Anderson pulls the camera back to add Sam to the scene. He’s now a part of this world, working on a painting of his and Suzy’s magical cove. There is a new calm at Summer’s End; the storm has passed, and Sam and Suzy are moving towards adulthood. When Laura calls the children down for dinner, Sam exits via the window, saying “See you tomorrow.” He and Suzy have found their own routine and a sense of contentment that allows them to be together but to be children while doing so. They can relinquish responsibility to the adults, at least for the time being.
It might seem that the sound is turned down on Sam and Suzy’s lives in this finale. But there is a realism here that was lacking in their earlier encounters. Despite the excitement and sense of adventure that Sam and Suzy’s journey engenders, children and adults have to coexist. This is what growing up is all about—finding a balance between our dreams and responsibilities.
Thankfully, Anderson doesn’t suggest that this is an easy feat. As Suzy prepares to head downstairs, she hesitates, before moving on. Then, we see Sam’s painting of the “Moonrise Kingdom” cove as it dissolves into a shot of their abandoned campsite. Sam’s painting is brighter, more alive than the real thing, which appears to us shrouded in greying rain. The true magic of childhood is harnessed in the imagination, which never fades.
Joanna Di Mattia is a writer and film critic based in Melbourne, Australia. Her criticism has appeared in a variety of publications, including Senses of Cinema and Fandor, and often reflects her interest in the dynamics of screen attraction—between characters, and between audience and screen.