With the upcoming release of Isle of Dogs, the latest feature from American auteur Wes Anderson, it is perhaps time to take a look back at his previous work. Anderson is a man who tends to provoke many questions: why do established high-profile actors keep starring in his films for only 2 minutes of screen time? Was he an interior decorator in a former life? Will we ever see him wearing something other than a corduroy suit? His films have become cult favourites, particularly for their brilliant aesthetics. Fortunately, they are not only a visual pleasure but also insightful to watch. His 2012 film Moonrise Kingdom perfectly casts childhood as a bittersweet period of adventure and development.
Summer in New Penzance, a fictitious island on the US east coast, in the 1960s. Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward), two 12-year olds, are running away together. Sam, an orphan spending the summer at the Khaki Scout’s Camp Ivanhoe, has nothing to leave behind. Suzy, the eldest daughter of two lawyers (Frances McDormand and Bill Murray), doesn’t either. They only have each other. The adults responsible for them and a bunch of Khaki Scouts try to retrieve them…
A whole entourage of very famous actors (Bruce Willis, Tilda Swinton and Edward Norton among them), often in marginal roles, make up the bulk of the cast. In light of that it is surprising that children drive this story. Adults are here the harbingers of a harsh reality, rather than amplifiers of joy.
On the island of New Penzance everyone seems detached from the wider world. Summer magically expands from days into long weeks of freedom without any responsibilities. Detachment and remoteness from the wider world do not mean sheltered, however. Sam and Suzy first have to face the challenges of the wild, relying on one another and Sam’s Scouting skills. In terms of nature, the location could not be more remote as endless forests make up most of the island. Unsurprisingly, Scouting and the act of literally going out there and exploring one’s surroundings constitute a major part of this film. Just like Sam and Suzy we feel part of an odyssey, of something genuine and exciting. Danger, but also novelty, lurks behind every corner, and no one knows yet which one it’s going to be: childhood in a nutshell. While this dreamlike event progresses, the adults take up the scent.
Scoutmaster Ward (Edward Norton) and Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) try their best to support the children while Suzy’s parents and the ominous Social Services (Tilda Swinton) represent the punishing character of adult life. They organise the retrieval of the fled lovers Sam and Suzy in a plot often reminiscent of action and disaster film staples. Anderson’s peculiar visual style reinforces that. The cinematography indulges in wide angles whilst simultaneously maintaining intimacy with the characters. Very deliberate camera movements independent from those of an actor maintain the sentiment that all of this happens in delirium or is somewhat staged.
With one of his more recent works, Anderson delivered a film that cherishes childhood as a sanctuary. He reminds us of the summers without responsibilities, where the only hardship one could face was parental reprehension. Moonrise Kingdom celebrates the freedoms and conflicts of growing up. Who would not want to go back in time for a few days and cherish it, unaware of what lies ahead? Would we act different? Maybe; but that’s not what it is about. It is about encountering the world and all its hardship, when the immediate neighbourhood of one’s house marked the edge of the universe.