Wanna see a movie whose cast includes Bill Murray, Bruce Willis, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Harvey Keitel, and Edward Norton? OK, but you’re gonna have to search for it. This “small” movie, “Moonrise Kingdom,” is rapidly proving to be a dark horse winner amidst the usual summer blockbusters. Currently in limited release, it’s well worth the effort to find and enjoy.
Written, directed, and co-produced by independent filmmaker Wes Anderson, the movie actually “stars” two newcomers, Kara Heyward and Jared Gilman. They play Suzy and Sam, two young lovers who run away from their unhappy environs. Suzy’s attorney parents, played with beguiling eccentricity by Murray and McDormand, regard her as a deeply troubled child, an opinion confirmed by Suzy’s problems with her schoolmates. Sam is an orphan, living with foster parents who disinvite him back while he is away at summer camp with the Khaki Scouts on the island of New Penzance. There, Scoutmaster and sometime math teacher Ward (Norton), runs a tight ship, though the story—including his taped daily log—reveals he has genuine concern for his boys.
The lovers first meet during a local performance of a musical called “The Flood,” which deals with Noah. During much of the three days’ action, we are reminded by an on-screen narrator (a deadpan Bob Balabian) that a hurricane is a-brewing, one that will set records during this summer of ’65. In the climactic moments, as the tempest hits, we get heroism, romance, parent/child conflict, social commentary, and considerable humor. A good deal of this involves Willis, here playing distinctly against type (and with hair!) as a small town police chief.
True to the spirit of the mid-‘60s, the film sides with the two young rebels against conformity in its various manifestations, social and familial. Lacking a cause other than being together, they are unpopular and unloved, smarter than their peers but not envied, isolated rather than admired. Since the young lovers are on an island, they can’t finally escape, though they daringly attempt to do so by canoe. Sexually speaking, the two adolescents have almost no clue what they are about. And they can’t really get married in best romcom fashion, though again they try to get hitched.
In other words, the story has the stuff of traditional—I want to say Shakesperian—comedy but will appeal to audiences for whom The Bard’s imprimatur is the kiss of death. Anderson directs his talented cast to underplay, preferring droll, quiet humor to big laugh lines and pratfalls. Neither Hayward nor Gilman are experienced enough to carry the film themselves, so Anderson surrounds them with high-power veterans in small parts. (Swinton’s cameo appearance as “Social Services” near the end is a stitch, as well as a swipe at government interference.) And along with the clever cinematography of Robert D. Yeoman and Adam Stockhausen’s spare production design, Anderson’s direction provides a good deal of visual comedy, the picture sufficing to make the point without intrusive dialogue or commentary.
“Moonrise Kingdom” hasn’t drawn large audiences, nor do I expect it to. It’s “PG-13” rating notwithstanding, this is an “adult” movie in the best sense, probably too slow and understated for the average teenager’s tastes and certainly not the stuff of box office winners. It’s a film of small but continual pleasures: track it down before it leaves the theaters, or check it out when the DVD hits the rental market.