“Moonrise Kingdom” begins with a narrator informing the viewer—among other geographical details about a small New England island—that a cataclysmic storm once hit this idyllic coastline in the summer of 1965, around the time the story takes place. This coming storm creates a sense of impending doom that permeates Wes Anderson’s latest film, as if an irregularity in the natural order had to be resolved or else the world would end.
Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) is an intelligent pre-teenager who lives with her attorney parents, Walt (Bill Murray) and Laura Bishop (Frances McDormand), and three younger brothers in a lighthouse on the island. Sam (Jared Gilman) is about the same age and similarly precocious. He only spends his summers in this tiny community as a Boy Scout for Camp Ivanhoe under the direction of Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton).
Suzy and Sam became close friends and maintained a simple but regular correspondence, through which a plan was eventually hatched to escape their respective homes unbeknownst to anyone. The day the story begins, they take off in search of a hidden beach on the other side of the island, their disappearance throwing the sleepy community into a general state of disarray.
In the story of Genesis (itself reenacted by the island’s children in a play), God punishes mankind for its wickedness. In “Moonrise Kingdom,” the children are the ones who pass judgment on their parents. Suzy knows her mother Laura is having an affair with the local police chief (Bruce Willis, in a wonderfully nuanced and sympathetic role), while Sam is an orphan whose “emotional problems” eventually lead his foster father to “let him go,” a fact he notifies him regretfully by letter.
As the story unfolds, Sam’s abandonment takes center stage as a new antagonist, a representative of the Social Services amusingly called “Social Services” (Tilda Swinton), enters the scene just as the storm is about to hit. She comes to take Sam away to a juvenile center for troubled children, a place seen by many on the island as little better than a concentration camp.
Anderson’s characters often display a passionate desire to belong to a group or a family. “I always wanted to be a Tenenbaum,” confesses a family friend in “The Royal Tenenbaums.” In “The Life Aquatic,” Steve Zissou, a middle-aged Cousteau-like explorer, asks a young man he believes to be his son to join his crew: “I want you on Team Zissou.” After the young accepts, Steve adds, “Well it’s got to be. I’ll order you a red cap and a speedo.” Acceptance and rejection from social circles are constant concerns for Anderson’s characters. In “Moonrise Kingdom,” the phobia of rejection is pushed to near-biblical proportions, with the very happiness of the islanders hedging upon Sam’s fate.
The script for “Moonrise Kingdom,” written by Anderson and Roman Coppola, does fumble a few times. Edward Norton’s role as Scout leader is undeservedly underdeveloped, with the effect of making his whole side-plot rather extraneous, while subdued performances by Bill Murray and Frances McDormand also disappoint. Further, there is one especially awkward sequence involving the children’s quickly escalating sexual relationship that’s really unnecessary.
On the whole, though, the film is a pleasure to watch. It may cover similar thematic grounds to previous Anderson movies, but its use of the story of the Flood adds a gravitas that greatly enriches the overall experience. Even if its intensity leaves the audience feeling almost drained by the conclusion, it also immediately calls for a second viewing.