Wes Anderson’s Enduring Preteen Romance 10 Years Later

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Few directors have such a distinctive style as Wes Anderson is. Every shot, set piece, costume and deliberate use of color contributes to his eclectic filmography and is the foundation on which he builds his films. A decade after its release, Moonrise Kingdom genre-mixing, offbeat preteen romance remains one of Anderson’s best works. All of Anderson’s trademarks are embedded in the film, and yet Moonrise Kingdom stands out from his other filmography by drawing inspiration from his own and co-writer Roman Coppolachildhood fantasies. Indeed, the multitude of references to fantasy heroes, superpowers and even biblical events creates a unique sense of magical realism in the most surprising of settings.


Moonrise Kingdom takes place on the fictional New England island of New Penzance in 1965, far from Anderson’s hometown of Houston, Texas. Perhaps referencing Anderson’s own fantastical depiction of a distant, intimate island where magical adventures take place, the director constructs the setting as akin to a character in its own right. Bob Balaban acts as the narrator of the film by introducing the island through a series of fast trajectories to a pebble beach, pine forest, winding creeks, perilous cliffs, overgrown fields, a derelict dock, and an old lighthouse. Each of these locations features key scenes later in the film, with the narrator predicting that a storm of biblical proportions will hit the island. Essentially, the entire film is foreshadowed by this introduction and illustrates how deliberately memorable Anderson creates his sets.

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Moonrise Kingdom centers on the developing relationship between two troubled teens, Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) and Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward† After meeting last summer, the two conspire to run away and live in the wilderness to escape the loneliness they feel in their domestic life. Suzy, the eldest child of four siblings and the only daughter, keeps a distance from her parents, while she regularly gets into fights at school. Sam, a junior Khaki Scout, is an unsociable orphan who is unloved and unwanted by his foster parents. The two come together when Sam sneaks into the girls’ locker room during a church play and Suzy chooses between a swarm of other girls all dressed in bird-like costumes. Suzy continues to stand out from her colorful co-performers, dressed as a striking black raven and accented with dark eyeliner, a reference to her unconventional personality. Sam’s first bizarre attempt at flirting wins over the shy and insecure Suzy, and the two begin a year-long written correspondence.

Anderson’s signature style comes into play through his introduction to Suzy by giving the audience an insight into her domestic life. Sweeping long shots take us into the many rooms of the decadent home of the bishops, with its stylized wallpaper, shelves full of books and gold-framed artwork. Suzy’s parents are introduced separated by a wall, her mother (Frances McDormand) lounging in her robes while her father (Bill Murray) casually reads a newspaper. They don’t seem interested in their daughter, nor notice when she slips out of the house in broad daylight, with luggage in tow. At Camp Ivanhoe, where Sam is staying for the summer, Master Randy Ward (Edward Norton) is introduced through his morning routine of Scout inspections, a symphony of percussion instruments in the background. Another Anderson signature is evident here, with his ability to pull off a deadpan appearance from any actor amid otherwise silly scenes. Randy discovers that Sam has run away in the middle of the night and begins an island-wide search led by Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis† Unfortunately, Suzy’s absence is not noticed until much later in the evening, after which she and Sam have already escaped into the wilderness.

It’s this escape into the wilderness where Anderson embeds elements of magical realism into what would otherwise have been a standard comedic drama. Sam and Suzy appear as fantastic characters, with the former dressed as an adventurer in his Scout uniform and Coonskin cap. The latter looks sweet in her pink dress with Peter Pan collar, paired with a woven tote bag containing a cute kitten. Suzy shares with Sam her prized books about female fantasy heroes, before retreating to their canary yellow tent that acts as a hidden escape. The two are delightfully awkward the entire time, and the child actors’ often rough performances fit the odd script well. Not one to shun taboo topics, as seen in The Royal TenenbaumsAnderson explores the sexuality of young teens through cringing first kisses, as well as an endearing dance where the two first let go. Both Suzy and Sam, though far too young to walk away and get into a relationship, are still admirably sincere in their feelings in an honest manifestation of puppy love intertwined with early adulthood.


One of Anderson’s strengths lies in his ability to cast famous actors in unconventional roles. Bruce Willis steps away from his action-hero form to play a demure, slightly incompetent cop who takes care of the anguished Sam deeply. Edward Norton’s Randy Sharp is committed to his role as a Scoutmaster (apparently more than his ‘side job’ as a math teacher) as he has formed close bonds with the Scouts over the summer. Frances McDormand and Bill Murray convey the crumbling nature of Mr. and Mrs. Bishop’s relationship as reflective and conducive to Suzy’s instability and desire for attention. Anderson was even able to spot an up and coming talent in Lucas Hedges Manchester by the sea), who initially auditioned for the part of Sam before the director decided he would be better suited for the role of Redford, a scout who acts as a secondary antagonist.

But the true essence of a Wes Anderson film is undoubtedly in the details. The cinematography of Moonrise Kingdom often takes on a storybook feel, with symmetrical shots of landscapes and characters adding to its fantastical aspects. One of the most memorable shots of Anderson’s entire filmography is that of Suzy looking out through her binoculars (her self-described superpower) as she stands atop the island’s lighthouse. Anderson somehow made the ordinary cloudy-blue sky look whimsical by contrasting the pink-orange of Suzy’s dress and the lighthouse. Beiges, oranges and greens are Anderson’s main color palette, seen in costumes, set design and natural landscapes, making certain aspects such as Suzy’s brightly colored luggage, her pink dress and sky-blue eyeshadow stand out, while adding to the feeling that the island itself is a character. Picturesque shots dot the film, and Anderson plays with shapes and sizes through his wide shot of the police station, one car, the post office, and the lighthouse, all of which share a similar red, white, and black color palette. Close-up photos of record players, dial-up telephones, frayed books and gleaming Scout pins reflect Anderson’s long-held fascination with vintage items. None of these additions feel superfluous, each piece helps construct a larger story that fits the time period yet feels fantastic. It’s these carefully selected details that take what would otherwise have been a dull and forgettable romantic story to the next level, ultimately illustrating why. Moonrise Kingdom is such an enduring piece of cinematic work.

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