A version of this review appeared in The Age, September 1, 2012.
Whether you see Wes Anderson as a tender humanist or a supplier of sour-sweet candy for grown-ups, he remains as eccentric and obsessive as any American filmmaker now working. Certainly, he deserves to be ranked as a serious artist – but serious about what? The puzzle persists in Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson's outwardly straightforward seventh feature: nothing could be more typical of his shifty methods than a love story involving a pair of 12-year-olds, whose desperately sincere feelings are automatically framed by an adult's ironic point of view.
The year is 1965; the setting is the fictional island of New Penzance, off the coast of New England, where the orphaned Sam (Jared Gilman) and the troubled Suzy (Kara Hayward) meet backstage at the annual church production of Benjamin Britten's children's opera Noye's Fludde. A connection is felt, letters are exchanged – and next summer, Sam runs away from scout camp and rows across the lake in his coonskin cap to reunite with his true love. Together they head for the woods, following the old Chickchaw Harvest Migration Trail towards the sea. Their relationship develops slowly, with all the expected awkward gestures and long pauses; meanwhile, the adults sound the alarm, and soon a rescue mission is underway.
Anderson fans may feel they've seen this all before. With his pedantic woodland knowledge and his easel painting, Sam is another version of the nerdy yet enterprising schoolboy hero played by Jason Schwartzman in Rushmore; Suzy, with her blue eyeshadow and haughty stare, could be a cousin of Gwyneth Paltrow's depressive Margot in The Royal Tenenbaums. For a while now, it's been clear that Anderson is bent on constructing a private mythology from one film to the next, returning to the same themes and devices over and over; in this sense he qualifies as a filmmaking dandy, albeit the anxious American kind, flaunting his connoisseurship while yearning for the innocence that allows children to soak up whatever culture lies close to hand. So Britten and Hank Williams alternate on the soundtrack, while the storyline seems to arise from a reverie where the Scholastic Book Club mingles with the French New Wave.
Bucking the digital trend, Moonrise Kingdom is shot on warm, grainy 16-milimetre film to look like a slightly faded print of itself. All the same, Anderson's chilly control freak tendencies are front and centre – not only in the meticulous art direction, but in the lateral tracking shots and 90-degree whip-pans that carve the landscape into manageable chunks, as with lines of latitude and longitude on a map. Indeed, maps of New Penzance recur throughout; wrapped in a long red coat like a storybook owl, Bob Balaban plays a fourth-wall-breaking tour guide who explains the geography of the island and other elements of the plot.
Though Anderson avoids the clichés lesser filmmakers use as shorthand for the 1960s, many aspects of his style evoke the era of youth rebellion. When he zooms in on his young lovers against a “primal” backdrop of rocks and sand, it's a classic gesture of hippie cinema, straight out of Michelangelo Antonioni's Zabriskie Point (1970). Yet the theme of generational warfare receives typically ambivalent treatment: though Sam and Suzy are determined to defy their respective guardians, Edward Norton as an earnest scout leader and Bruce Willis as the local sheriff rank among the most benign authority figures in the Anderson oeuvre.
The fact is that leaders, hierarchies, merit badges and so forth are intensely important to Anderson, not only as targets for gentle mockery but as sources of structure and meaning in a frightening world. Even at their most arbitrary, conventions provide a way of avoiding the choice between the tame and the wild, between comforting civilisation and longed-for violence – a dichotomy basic to all his work and very close to the surface here. What would happen if he cut loose from good taste and dramatised his inner conflicts on a grander scale, even (or especially) at the risk of scandal or embarrassment? Hidden under all the whimsy might be some kind of full-blown romantic, if only he'd stop apologising for his instincts with shy little jokes.