When I was a kid, there was something called ‘Phantom Cigarette’ (mint flavored candy shaped as a cigarette) which had captured popular imagination like few candies would ever do. My friends and I would take one of those cigarettes, balance it delicately between our lips, and pretend to smoke. And that would give us heightened joys. I can now probably understand why. Kids are inherently fascinated by what adults do. Pretending to smoke phantom cigarettes was a window into an adult life. Every kid wants to grow up as quickly as possible. We were no different. And neither are the children in Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom.
Much of the joy in Moonrise Kingdom can be found in the world Anderson creates. The year is 1965 and the place is an island called New Penzac in New England. And what an instantly likable and warm place that is. It’s populated by charming and whimsical characters – children who behave like adults and adults who are no better than children. As the movie begins, the world of New Penzac is introduced through vibrant, optimistic colors, and the dynamics of the world is laid out before us – it’s a world where life is uncomplicated, where you would not find cut-throat jealousy, sardonic barbs, or the unsettling, survival of the fittest. Idyllic, serene would be some of the words that could describe New Penzac fittingly. It is a world similar to the ones encountered in fairy tales.
The island wakes from its stupor when one of the khaki scouts, Sam Shakusky goes missing. Sam is an orphan who’s unanimously disliked. His foster parents also refuse to take him in, if he’s ever found, that is. There’s also a girl, Suzy, who is missing from the island. The letters exchanged between Suzy and Sam are discovered which reveal that both of them hatched a plan to disappear together. Captain Sharp, (Bruce Willis), and Scout Master Ward (Ed Norton) along with his khaki scouts set in pursuit of the two absconding kids.
Anderson now shifts the focus to the absconding kids. Sam, a street smart twelve-year old boy who seems to know much more about the world than he should at his age. Accompanying him is Suzy, a no-nonsense girl who is more willing to be snappy than cheerful. It’s an odd combination, but an endearing one. Via a flashback, we learn that both of them are misfits; they can’t get along with anyone in school or even outside. Both of them are different but unapologetic about it. And Anderson manages to say all that sans any sadness. In fact, it’s commendable how consistently Anderson manages to maintain the playful, goofy ambience throughout.
Movies about children broadly fall into two categories — movies that are for children and movies that are about children. Many Iranian movies belong to the latter category – movies that are about children but are much more solemn thematically. It’s difficult to place in what slot Moonrise Kingdom resides. There are many scenes in the movie that have an oddball, hilarious, childlike quality to them, but I don’t think the children would find the quirkiness in those scenes. You have to be a grown-up to fully comprehend why children trying to be overtly mature are funny. But the movie is not entirely whimsical; it does have its share of reflecting moments. Suzy’s mother, Laura, is having an affair with the town sheriff, Captain Sharp. It’s hinted that Suzy’s husband might know about this, but we aren’t sure. Then in one of the later scenes, we peep into their bedroom and see both of them sleeping on separate beds. Laura stares at the ceiling and apologizes from her husband. He doesn’t understand (or feigns ignorance) why she has to be sorry. She is unable to articulate a straight-forward reply. It’s such a sad scene out of nowhere that you realize this is a much mature film than it pretends to be.
There are many scenes in the movie which underscores the main characters’ desire to grow up. In one such scene, Sam and Suzy are in an island they have absconded to, and they start dancing to a song playing on Suzy’s tape-recorder. In a moment of intimacy, their lips flick each other. But they are not satisfied. “We are supposed to french kiss,” says the stoic twelve-year old girl. The scene sits brilliantly between being tender and uproaringly funny. Because that moment is a life-altering event at the time for those two twelve-year old, but appears goofy to the audience. Anderson exploits this schism effectively. Then Suzy rounds it up with an equally comical, “You can touch my chest if you want.” The boy does as instructed, the girl pauses for a bit and then adds, “They will grow bigger.”
Much like its central characters, Moonrise Kingdom is a movie that is neither here nor there. But that is not a bad thing. In fact, Anderson walks on this tightrope with much elan, and brings back the much-needed pristine joy to the cinemas.