In Moonrise Kingdom, Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward) run away from home. They live on an island, so they can’t get far. But still, they run, because they are in love, and they are 12 years old, but their parents say they are too young and there is just no way.
Fortunately, Sam is a decorated Khaki Scout with many badges in camping and foraging. He makes great, comfortable tents for Suzy and himself. She brings books — she loves adventure stories the best — and her binoculars, which always hang around her neck.
One day, in the woods, Suzy spots a deer. “He knows someone’s watching,” she says about the animal as it stares back. “He can feel us.”
The same could be said of the characters in Moonrise Kingdom: They know we’re watching them, and they’re OK with it, but they’re not going to put on a show for us. Like the rest of Wes Anderson’s films (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, Fantastic Mr. Fox), the movie has a deliberate archness, a sense of theatricality that makes you want to hang a frame around the edges of the screen. In the past, that aesthetic sometimes led to cold, fussy pictures (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The Darjeeling Limited). But Moonrise Kingdom is different, because it feels personal and earnest, its situations drawn from real life instead of art, its emotions honest, its affection genuine.
Most importantly, Anderson — who wrote the screenplay with Roman Coppola — has an actual story to tell. Moonrise Kingdom is set in a fictional world in 1965 — which the director seems to have imagined from the ground up, from the covers of the books Suzy reads to the jackets of record albums to the indelible colors of rotary telephones. The opening credits put the names of the actors in the extreme corners of the screen, as if to let you know to search every frame of the movie, because there are little treasures everywhere.
Anderson’s precise attention to detail doesn’t get in the way of the story: It heightens the pleasures of Moonrise Kingdom, which features Bruce Willis as the world’s saddest sheriff; Bill Murray and Frances McDormand as a pair of husband-and-wife attorneys headed for divorce; Edward Norton as a fastidious scout leader who tasks his charges with unusual, hilariously dangerous missions; Bob Balaban as a narrator who keeps warning us about an approaching storm; and Tilda Swinton as a bureaucratic social-services worker named Social Services.
But the true stars of the movie are Gilman and Hayward, who look and talk like real kids, and whose sweet, awkward, endearing romance will remind you of your first true love, regardless of how old you were when it happened. Moonrise Kingdom isn’t a movie about childhood: It’s a movie about how we remember childhood, when confrontations with other kids seemed to have life-or-death stakes, grown-ups spoke about things we didn’t understand or care about, and it really was possible to run away and go on a wild adventure, as long as you brought the proper supplies. The film is precious and adorable, but it isn’t naïve (these kids are becoming sexually aware), and the movie breathes so deep that Anderson even gets a real performance out of Willis (this is his best work in years). Most of Anderson’s previous pictures came from the head; Moonrise Kingdom is one from the heart.
Cast: Jared Gilman, Kara Hayward, Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, Harvey Keitel, Bob Balaban.
Director: Wes Anderson.
Screenwriters: Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola.
Producers: Wes Anderson, Steven M. Rales, Scott Rudin.
A Focus Features release. Running time: 94 minutes. Adult themes. Opens Friday June 22 in Miami-Dade: South Beach; in Broward: Gateway; in Palm Beach: Paradise.