Wes Anderson is one of the most creative filmmakers of our time. Beginning with Bottle Rocket in 1996, he has directed a string of surreal, emotionally complex dramas that explore the dreams and aspirations of underdog youths, usually within a context of dysfunctional relationships. These include Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, and Darjeeling Limited. I have found all of his films to be fascinating narratives and visual delights (including his 2009 animated feature Fantastic Mr. Fox). So naturally I eagerly anticipated viewing his acclaimed new film, Moonrise Kingdom.
The film centers on the relationship of a twelve-year-old boy, Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman), and the slightly older Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward), who meet on the New England Island of New Penzance during the summer of 1965. Suzy lives on the island with her parents (played by Bill Murray and Frances McDormond), and Sam comes to the island with his fellow “Khaki Scouters” for a summer camp. The two youths, like so many of the heroes of Anderson films, are misunderstood prodigies, and they find refuge at a picturesque island cove they dub “Moonrise Kingdom.” Eventually their quirky relationship blossoms into a romance that is apparently both rebellious (they defy parents, the camp leader, and other authorities) and innocent (though highly erotic, their relationship is never consummated sexually). However, their efforts to preserve their idyllic two-person “kingdom” are foiled, as they are pursued and ultimately captured by the authorities in an apocalyptic conclusion full of biblical flood imagery.
As with all his films, Anderson weaves a rich cinematographic tapestry. And the narrative is loaded with disaffected characters who seem to take even the most bizarre turns of events in stride. Anderson has an ingenious ability to communicate universal themes of the human condition using the most unusual characters and plots. These are people we would never meet doing utterly ridiculous things in the most preposterous situations. Nevertheless, somehow it all seems familiar, meaningful and even right.
Yet, upon further reflection, it is not all right. In fact, there is something seriously wrong here. And it’s not just the relational dysfunction or even defying of authority. Anyway, such things are commonplace in contemporary film and often function as narrative elements that serve redemptive themes. No, the problem with this film is the way it eroticizes youth. There is an intense sexual energy between Sam and Suzy that will make most viewers uncomfortable, and for good reason. One is relieved, of course, that the two youths do not do anything more than kiss (though they do so while stripped down to their underwear). Perhaps most viewers’ moral qualms will be assuaged by this fact. But this is precisely what makes the film so morally subversive. It encourages viewers to regard Sam and Suzy’s erotic relationship as innocent. Moreover, these pubescent characters are eroticized for the viewer—especially Suzy for male viewers. This might sound prudish, but it is not insignificant, especially given the trajectory of our culture when it comes to all things sexual.
Many other films have been controversial because of their use of children in sexual situations. Moonrise Kingdom is noteworthy in that it does the same thing but has avoided serious controversy. This is no doubt because of the comparative subtlety of the sexual content and the false sense of innocence that Anderson manages to project onto Sam and Suzy’s relationship. This, too, is a tribute to Anderson’s genius as a storyteller. But it is also a testament to the power of film—especially an otherwise good film—to deceive and confuse a viewer’s moral discernment.