Few directors’ films are as instantly identifiable as Wes Anderson’s, with their symmetrical framing, deadpan performances and obsessive attention to fussy detail. Generally speaking, you’re either a fan or you’re not—and it’s hard to imagine the former not surrendering to his latest, Moonrise Kingdom, which is set on a tiny fictional island off the coast of New England in 1965 but of course truly unfolds in Wesworld. Like Anderson’s breakthrough work, Rushmore, it earns its pathos by juxtaposing youthful idealism with adult resignation, albeit this time in entirely separate narrative strands: While two preteen runaways, Sam and Suzy (newcomers Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward), bond in the great outdoors over their shared sense of alienation, the grown-ups trying to find them—including Suzy’s unhappy parents (Frances McDormand and Bill Murray), a lonely sheriff (Bruce Willis, superb for the first time in many years) and a scoutmaster experiencing an existential identity crisis (Edward Norton)—serve as vivid counterpoint reminders of why the first pangs of love stay with us for the rest of our lives.
Thing is, though, that description, while accurate, ignores how deadpan-hilarious Moonrise Kingdom often is, especially during its dizzyingly inventive first half. Anderson packs every frame with sight gags, many of which you can barely glimpse as his camera elegantly glides to its next designated position; actors toss off razor-sharp dialogue as if blithely unaware that they’re saying something funny, which is exactly how one-liners should be delivered but so seldom are.
A flashback to Sam and Suzy’s epistolary courtship, featuring snippets of each hand-printed letter (almost invariably cut off mid-sentence), establishes their ardor with giddy economy, freeing the two young actors playing them to inhabit that weirdly amorphous zone between friendship and desire in which preadolescent romance inevitably gets stuck. That there’s such a melancholic undercurrent, courtesy of the flailing adults who are forced by this crisis to grapple with their own frustrations and disappointments, only makes the film that much tangier and richer. If you hate Wes Anderson, this movie won’t change your mind, but believers should be enchanted.