By Santiago Ramos
Because I decided, some time ago, that I wanted grow up, I felt that I had to stop watching Wes Anderson’s movies. I simply had to reject The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, and I didn’t make an effort to go back and see Bottle Rocket and Rushmore. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy those movies that I did see. It’s that I enjoyed them, but in the way one enjoys cotton candy: As a mostly insubstantial substance that quickly dissolves once it has entered the precincts of the soul. And, as something that is for children.
Too harsh? But this is what Wes Anderson, as far as I can tell, desires to be known as: The artist who defends childhood. An artist, that is, who defends the child’s point of view as the uniquely innocent and true vantage point in the messy world we live in. His previous movie, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, was a straight-up children’s movie. Anderson is also a known admirer of J.D. Salinger, another famous defender of childhood.
None of this is something to ashamed of. Someone once said that, unless you become like little children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Towards the end of his life, the great Spanish director, Luis Bunuel, said that his goal was to, in some way, “return to childhood.”
But there is a negative way to celebrate childhood: As an excuse for escaping from the world of adults. The world of adults is, among other things, the world where we live and die, where the most beautiful things make themselves known, and where those who are suffering are asking us to help them. In one way, a “return to childhood” is a flight from the place where the drama of life is happening.
I could never tell which side Wes Anderson was on: Childishness or childhood? His movies for the most part bored me: They didn’t feel dramatic, nothing truly seemed to be at stake in them. They talk about real problems — family dysfunction, terminal illness, artistic integrity, failed careerism — in an ironic way, always hinting at the ultimate un-reality of the world of the film. Then these problems are resolved in a white cloud of sentimentality. To be sure, Anderson is also a brilliant and deft stylist, completely in control of the mood of his films, the structure of the worlds he creates, the tone of the script, and the quirky sense of humor that he is known for. It’s just I felt that his movies don’t look at life in the face.
Anderson’s latest film, Moonrise Kingdom, opens up the possibility for a new beginning in the filmmaker’s career. Not because in it, the children are forced to grow up, but because the adults are forced to become parents. In it, Anderson comes out, unequivocally, on the side of childhood.
The film takes place on an idyllic and sparsely-populated island, in the summer of 1965, about three days before a big storm is supposed to hit. Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) and Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) are pen pals who met the previous summer, and whose correspondence has helped them to face their unhappy familial situations.
Suzy feels alienated in a house dominated by four younger brothers and squabbling parents. She knows about her mother’s affair with the island sheriff, the lonely Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis). She also knows that her parents think she is a “troubled child.” Sam, on the other hand, doesn’t have parents. He is an orphan who lives in a foster home, and he is sent by his foster parents to camp on the island with a troupe of Khaki Scouts. While he is on the trip, his foster parents inform the island authorities that Sam is no longer welcome back — he is too much trouble — but that Social Services would find a place for him to live, after the camping trip.
Sam and Suzy concoct a plan to escape together during Sam’s camping trip, and the movie begins with the first attempt at escape. The care that Sam has for Suzy, as he makes sure that every detail of their journey is meticulously planned out, and that every step she takes is a safe one, is moving. It is beautiful to see love in its nascent, innocent state. It’s a state that the adults on the island have long forgotten.
All of the adults — Captain Sharp, Khaki Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton), and Suzy’s parents Walt (Bill Murray) and Laura (Frances McDormand) — are out to stop Sam and Suzy from escaping. Slowly, however, each of them is won over by the sincerity of the kids’ desire for true acceptance, and by their love for each other. As Captain Sharpe tells Sam, “I know you are smarter than me.”
Captain Sharpe’s epiphany is met not with a sentimental reassurance — as in, for example, Life Aquatic, which ends with a lot of hugging — but with the chance to make a choice. The choice is whether to adopt the orphaned Sam. It is a choice which, if made, would have reverberations throughout the island, in the hearts of all the other adults who are not living up to their own responsibility of parenthood. The choice must be made quickly, because the storm is approaching and there is no escape from the island — that is, from the world of adults.
The world of adults, however, ideally should be hospitable to children. It should protect childhood and do away with childishness. Childishness among adults ultimately hurts children, as this movie points out. Perhaps the point of all of Wes Anderson’s is to explore this distinction. After Moonrise Kingdom, I think I can return to his previous films and watch them with a more sympathetic eye.
Santiago Ramos writes from Boston, Mass.