The genre map of the coming-of-age film is a well explored country. Off the the top of my head I can think of a few classics that I have enjoyed over the years. Lasse Hallström’s ‘My Life as a Dog’; John Duigan’s ‘Flirting’; Nic Roeg’s ‘Walkabout’ (yes I would describe it as a coming of age film); Shane Meadows’ ‘This is England’; Fernando Meirelles’ ‘City of God’. By no means a definitive list – just a few examples that popped into my head. Funnily enough, not a single American film on there, which wasn’t a conscious choice, but is perhaps representative of how non-US cinema handles the subject matter and how they have rooted themselves in my head.
Recently out on DVD in the UK is Wes Anderson’s latest film, Moonrise Kingdom. And I think it is perhaps the best example of the coming-of-age genre to emerge from the USA. Wes Anderson’s films are no doubt an acquired taste amongst the average film-goer with their mannered, deadpan quirkiness. They are often accused of being style over substance, but I strongly disagree. Each one is quite different in tone, although there is always a deep sadness in many of the main characters, hence Anderson’s frequent use of sad-sack extraordinaire Bill Murray. What some might perceive as artificiality in the perfectly-composed shots and direct-to-camera addresses, I often find is a tremendously involving device. The worlds that Wes Anderson creates are often places you want to crawl into and snuggle up.
Moonrise Kingdom is the kind of film that I just want to eat with a spoon. Never cloying or false. Not clichéd or mawkish. It’s funny and touching and achingly sad in equal measure. Bruce Willis, Bill Murray and Edward Norton all play characters with similar degrees of quiet desperation, although each is very different and they play well against the two kids as an example of reality vs expectations. Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward as Sam and Suzy, the pair of damaged dreamers at the centre of the story are magnificent and so watchable, carrying a story that is as believable as it is dreamlike and idealised. This is a 1965 that we would all like to occupy, a fantastical version of nostalgic memory, but it cuts to the bone as well. The kids are not perfect little angels. Their problems are real and both particular to the era and relevant to modern issues of psychological difficulties and childhood abandonment.
This is also very much a fairytale. With its gnome-like narrator carrying dire portents of the storm to come, which we know is going to affect the outcome in some dramatic way. There is even a wicked witch in the form of Tilda Swinton as Social Services. Everything about Sam and Suzy’s journey into the woods and their ‘Moonrise Kingdom’ on the beach reeks of fairytale. It’s wish-fulfilment fantasy sharpened by the hard edge of reality. We want to be Sam with his enviable scouting skills, but we don’t want his hard upbringing amongst the foster homes of 1960s USA. We want to be Suzy in her cosy island house so well shot in the opening of the film, but we don’t want her anger issues and feelings of alienation.
Everything about this film is thought out to the tiniest detail. The cinematography is lush and stark, warm and foreboding. The comedy balances perfectly with the drama, and the film moves along at a fair clip so it never feels slow. Sam and Suzy’s predicament is always engaging and we are rooting for them the whole way even when it looks like everything is going to end badly. And it isn’t just about the kids. The adults have rounded character arcs and are given plenty of screentime. Bruce Willis and Edward Norton are particularly good. Willis communicating a deep sadness and regret along with warmth (reminded me of his best performance, in 12 Monkeys), and Norton child-like and eager, but also hiding an emptiness that leads to some great scenes from him near the end.
I’ve seen most of Wes Anderson’s films now (only Bottle Rocket and Fantastic Mr Fox have slipped past me), and I think he’s found the perfect vehicle for his style with Moonrise Kingdom. It’s defiantly different from the mass-produced Hollywood fare and works so well for it. No matter what you think of his previous films, I defy you to watch this and not smile at least once. Me, I had a slowly widening grin through the entire film.