Falling in love can be treacherous business. The flush of excitement when interest clicks over to happy infatuation is undeniably thrilling, but it also foretells all the moments in the future when it won’t quite live up to the earlier highs, when reality comes striding in with disappointment clinging to its arm. That’s true of romance, but it also applies to falling in love with art. I became fully committed to the work of Wes Anderson within the first reel of his 1998 film, Rushmore, completely enraptured by the bold inventiveness, the visual precision and the filmmaker’s uncanny ability to merge exaggeration with piercingly true emotions. Even though I’ve greatly admired some of his other films, I’ve also had a nagging worry that his extremely particular style was becoming a self-defeating problem, as if his films would continue to be drawn in tighter and tighter circles until the characters within them couldn’t even move any longer. His last live action film, 2007’s The Darjeeling Limited, became so cloistered in Anderson’s cinematic tics that it started to operate in an intellectual and spiritual languid stiffness that matched the pace of the director’s trademark slow motion shots.
Whatever worry I had that Anderson set his raft on a creative whirlpool that he’d never manage to paddle free from is completely eradicated by Moonrise Kingdom, easily his best film since Rushmore, and an effort that proves he can still find the comic truth in wrenching emotions and the pathos within whimsy. The movie concerns young love, following the sweet, troubled bonding between a khaki scout named Sam, played by Jared Gilman, and a moody girl with a flashpoint temper named Suzy, played by Kara Hayward. Set in the 1965, all the better to capitalize on Anderson’s brand of hip nostalgia, the film finds the star-crossed tweens running away from the respective summer residences on a New England island, evidently to strike out on their own for good. They are pursue by the various woebegone adults in their lives, including Suzy’s parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand), Sam’s troop leader (Edward Norton) and the head and apparently sole member of the island police force (Bruce Willis).
The poignancy, directness and relative simplicity of the core relationship is freeing to Anderson, who co-wrote the film with his Darjeeling collaborator, Roman Coppola. Because these are ultimately children that are play-acting at an adult relationship, the careful placing of every element is recontextualized. It begins to feel less like a director with a overly controlling hand over his scenarios, and more like the cautious efforts of kids (and the adults that are, in a way, as lost as the kids) putting everything into a place that might not be right but feels close enough to their perception. Anderson also made a point of casting novice actors for the various kids’ roles, reportedly drawing inspiration from François Truffaut, who took that approach with the 1976 film Small Change. It loosens up the film, lending it a blessed naturalism that Anderson’s instincts can sometimes bypass. The quiet normalcy of their interactions–as they talk about books, siblings, records and any of the other things that exit apart from the connection between the two of them–only make the fable-like invention of the other parts of the film all the more charming.
I may still feel like I had reasonable cause to doubt the endurance of Anderson’s largely unchanging style (he will probably never make a movie that doesn’t include a shot of a large group of characters walking in slow motion), but Moonrise Kingdom revives my excitement for his work. There’s a kind loveliness to the way stories and character spill out of his imagination, a generosity to Anderson’s world that still manages to acknowledge the presence and pull of sadness. Anderson’s cinematic world is its own unique place, but when its fulsome spirit shines through clearly, that very uniqueness is a pure treasure.