Summer is here, that great diastole of American cinema when the cash floods into an artistically relaxed industry, later to be strenuously pumped out again during the systole of awards season. Though autonomic, this annual lub-dub is hardly without interest. Already, in the early phase of the present year’s spasm, the flow has carried in Prometheus, a long-awaited 3-D blockbuster concerned more or less with the death of God (as well as more predictable matters, such as the imperative to scare audiences into losing sphincter control). Meanwhile, in the little counterswirls that occur in any current, films of less commercial potential but even greater interest have bobbed to the surface. On the festival circuit, The Invisible War, a Sundance Audience Award winner, is showing in New York screenings for the Human Rights Watch Film Festival this summer, bringing audiences information about a problem both urgent and chronic: rape in the US military. In the art houses, Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom has been demonstrating how it’s possible for a film to have a heart.
Like most of Anderson’s films, Moonrise Kingdom seems to have been made in a lovingly constructed hall of mirrors, where youthful hope and adult discouragement infinitely reflect each other. Grown-ups take on a juvenile appearance, as Edward Norton does, playing a scout troop leader with khaki shorts and a nicotine habit; and kids go about encrusted in someone’s memorabilia, as do Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward, playing 12-year-old lovers who escape into the wild lugging everything from a Davy Crockett coonskin cap to a plastic portable record player. It’s as if the boy and girl, whose adventure takes place in late summer 1965, were being shown not as they were then but as they might remember themselves in 2012, amid the trappings of nostalgia; as if the backward perspective of almost fifty years had flattened the emotional difference between their generation and that of their parents. Bill Murray, white-haired and hangdog as the girl’s father, throws tantrums like a 5-year-old, pitching his shoes at an enemy and himself at the nearest tree trunk. Bruce Willis, as the sad, lovesick cop who becomes the boy’s protector, pours a beer for his young ward as casually as if sharing a Coke.
To Anderson’s critics, his stories of wayward grown-ups and solemn, precocious children are too whimsical and precious for their own good. Whether the setting is the New York City townhouse of The Royal Tenenbaums, the sea lab of The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou or the railroad line of The Darjeeling Limited (which somehow passes through India without ever seeming to touch down in the country), there is nothing at stake in Anderson’s enclosed little worlds except his design sense, and nothing for the characters to confront except a risk of death from coyness. But if you see that Anderson is in effect collapsing disparate stages of life (especially mental stages), disparate eras and viewpoints, into a single image, you understand that the world of Moonrise Kingdom, though cute and miniature, can scarcely contain all the love and disappointment, conflict and absurdity that’s been compressed into it. (Suzy, the runaway girl, standing over a terrier who was shot dead with an arrow: “Was he a good dog?” Sam, the runaway boy, with wisdom beyond his years: “Who’s to say?”) Then you understand that Moonrise Kingdom is not just one of the best films of summer 2012 but is among the few that are redemptive.
It has all the artifice you’d expect of Anderson: doll-size models placed in toylike settings, elaborately staged theatricals and an instructive soundtrack. (As Leonard Bernstein explains at the beginning, courtesy of that portable record player, we are being treated to a theme and variations.) Tracking shots unfold like scrolls; close-ups illuminate their subjects like figures in a diorama; and the costumes seem to have been bought in an old New England junk shop that never existed until Anderson had it created for this production. He has possibly the most comprehensive style in current cinema, so obsessively ordered that it tames even the story’s hurricane. (Although Anderson filmed much of Moonrise Kingdom outdoors on a lushly wooded island, nobody has made nature feel so interior since Michael Powell in Black Narcissus.) Most studied of all is the acting, with the troubled young lovers—bespectacled, round-faced Gilman, and Hayward with her burning eyes—always speaking in pure Anderson deadpan.