BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC Critic’s darling director Wes Anderson has, over the course of six films and change, honed a precious, man-child cinematic aesthetic that is the recognizable manifestation of a nerdy, never-ending adolescence. In modern times, the word “nerd” has been reclaimed as a badge of honor and we admire the studious for their ingenuity but Wes Anderson brings to mind a certain kind of nerd. I’m getting a picture of the kind of awkward intense kid whose parents bankroll his basement project of recreating the whole town in 1/100th scale. Sometimes they let him miss school to work on it, and you can come over and steal a look at his work but “For God sakes don’t touch!”
The best part of Wes Anderson’s films are when that fussy dedication to handmade craft is on display, from the ealborate sets of the school plays in Rushmore, the hermetically-sealed submarine built for The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, as well as in the toy-like miniaturized world of the stop-motion animated Fantastic Mr. Fox. Similarly, Anderson builds beautifully winsome characters to populate those meticulously art-directed realms but he rarely delivers the kind of storytelling that would bring them to life. He pastes his figures into dramatic backgrounds and there they pose, until the movies ultimately shrug and go home. After the ennui-infused Darjeeling Limited, Anderson found new life by making the kid’s film Fantastic Mr. Fox, where his weakness for meandering plots was bolstered by adapting Roald Dahl’s original story. His latest, Moonrise Kingdom is pretty much a kid’s film too, although they are not marketing it as such. It’s also among the director’s most-successful concoctions, its runaway pre-teen lovers give the film an emotional tug and a sweeping momentum. Yet fleeting moments of Anderson’s creepy man-child mindset kept me from whole-heartedly embracing this mostly-charming film.
Set in the mid-sixties, Moonrise Kingdom was shot on an unspoiled island off the coast of Rhode Island that evokes a certain innocence. Told as a fable by Bob Balaban’s on-screen narration, we meet two brainy and restless twelve-year-olds, the orphaned Sam and bookish Susie (newcomers Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward.) They met when Sam was AWOL from his “Khaki Scout” troop during a camping trip to the island where Susie lives. They exchange many letters afterward and when Sam’s troop returns to the island the lovers meet and run off into the wilderness, with a search party and the scout troop on their trail. The children’s film tone suits Anderson’s character’s, who have always been two-thirds costume and set design. Bill Murray is lively but admirably restrained as Susie’s dad, Ed Norton brings a certain quiet depth to his straight-arrow troop leader and Jason Schwartzman shows up late with a goofy turn as a wheeling-dealing scout leader. But it is the kids who are front and center, posing in Anderson’s carefully-groomed, earthy sets like gorgeous exotic birds. And despite mid-60s setting, Anderson is restrained on the period soundtrack, including a lot of Hank Williams along with Alexandre Desplat’s glockenspiel and chorus score, plus Leonard Bernstein’s classic rendering of Benjamin Britten’s “A Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra.”
Through all this gorgeously whimsical design, there’s one niggling fact, taking up less than two minutes of screen time, that curdled the sweet-natured mood of Moonrise Kingdom for me. It is in the way Anderson films his young female lead, Susie. At the age of twelve Susie is just at the cusp of puberty, doe-eyed and naive, with a poise and directness of an adult. It reminded me of the way the twelve year-old Natalie Portman was presented in Luc Besson’s Leon: The Professional, with the near-romance between Portman and her mid-40s-ish co-star Jean Reno. Where Besson flirted with the romantic tension, he kept Portman and Reno’s relationship chaste. In comparison, Anderson is more prurient. ??Giving Susie the same sort of otherworldly resonance he bestowed on Gwyneth Paltrow’s Margot Tenenbaum as she walked in slow-motion while Nico sang “These Days,” Anderson makes her more of a hipster ideal than a real human being. With her precise fashion sense and her love of Francois Hardy and feminist fantasy fiction, Susie is the sort of creation that more closely resembles a twenty-something Brooklyn art student than a real pre-teen girl.
Movies give us the license to stare at a beautiful child but Anderson betrays our trust and the light-hearted mood of the film by getting…well, kind of pervy. First it is a fleeting look at Susie’s underwear as she climbs into the tent and then an awkward love scene with the pair standing in an isolated alcove in their underwear. First they kiss, then she coaxes him to French kiss her, then mention is made of his hard-on, then he begins massaging her breasts. From there it is a hard cut of Sam and Susie lounging while Sam smokes a pipe, the oldest post-coital symbol in the book. I can’t imagine being as distracted by this in a realistic film about teens, but in Anderson’s idealized fantasy world, the sexualization of Susie hits a discomforting note. Revisiting the pangs of first love makes for heady nostalgia, fantasizing about nailing your 12 year-old girlfriend takes us to a much darker place. Like an inappropriate comment a friend makes about your daughter, I could forgive Anderson’s lecherous eye, but I couldn’t quite forget it.
(Dan, having finally seen the film last night, let the record show I think thou doth protest too much. The scenes in question clearly fall on the right side of artistic representations of the first awkward gropings of budding sexuality vs. pornography. As did my girlfriend who is sensitive about such matters. No ‘creepy’ flags were raised on our end. — The Ed.)