Ostensibly, everything on the fictional island of New Penzance is out of a Normal Rockwell painting. The colors are clean, the children are adorned with suspenders, crisp hems, and Sunday school shoes, and everything has its place. Such is the life imagined in Wes Anderson’s new film Moonrise Kingdom. This film shares a number of character elements with Anderson’s previous films: there’s discord in marriage, loneliness in middle age, perceived battles with depression, and isolation.
However, Moonrise Kingdom pushes the envelope a touch more than just an exploration of the family dynamic and offers a broader critique of mid-twentieth-century society, particularly the discourse surrounding the validity of psychology, the definition of madness, and the use of shock therapy, and hospitalization. Sam and Suzy are the two young protagonists that drive this film, but their age – and implied innocence – cast a playful light on events that pit Kesey’s R.P. McMurphy and Burgess’ Alex DeLarge on the line between “good” and “bad” and their fluctuating referents.
Sam and Suzy are both isolated and disliked: Sam because he’s an orphan categorized as mentally disturbed because his parents died; Suzy because she’s the inquisitive daughter adulterating a brood of three sons, and her ambitions and opinions are miscategorized as anger issues. After a chance encounter during a play at the local church, Sam and Suzy keep up a correspondence through the mail that results in the two meeting in a field in an attempt to run away along the various footpaths that weave throughout the island. While cute in a “two outsiders find each other, fall in love, and get married – though not legally – sort of way,” the cuteness is merely a veneer that covers the overall commentary on social conformity and the growing anxiety over place and role.
With the exception of Sam and Suzy, most characters within Moonrise Kingdom are nameless, and if their name is mentioned it’s briefly and almost perfunctorily as if Anderson is giving the audience one chance to connect the character in the credits with the corresponding actor or actress. Edward Norton is the Scout Master of the Khaki Scouts at Camp Ivanhoe. His name, Randy, is mentioned laconically, but this seems tertiary to conducting “spot checks” that yield “uniform violations” and deciding whether his job is as a fifth-grade math teacher or a “scoutmaster.” Ultimately, he settles on scout master, but this decision seems reliant on the uniform. If not for the uniform, his role as teacher would be unknown, so why bother. Moreover, Randy’s interaction with his scouts equally elides their identities, relegating them to ostensible nicknames like “shorty,” “skinny,” or “lazy eye.”
On the morning that Sam goes missing, Randy and the rest of the troop eat breakfast at the communal table, but the empty chair requires Randy to ask, “Who’s missing?” Only after a conference do the boys produce the name, “Sam.” Sam in and of himself is named, but his name becomes pejoratized and associated with “mental disturbance” and difficulty, so much so that when he’s reported missing, his foster parents “can’t invite him back.” To the troops, he is a burdensome conundrum. On the one hand, they too write him off as “emotionally disturbed.” At the same time, he provides them the opportunity to participate in a venture that is “not just a search party, but a first-class exercise in scouting.” His safety seems secondary to the scouts beings “scouts,” justifying their uniforms and their respective roles in the troop – that are conveniently defined by name tags and badges.
The troop consists of ten to twelve boys, but their identities are elided. Each one’s name is sketched on his uniforms in barely legible black marker. However, this tagging appears beneath a clearer, patch – black letters on a white background – that announces their roles in the troop: “tent pitcher,” “wood gatherer,” “scout,” and “latrine.” Here, Anderson addresses intersecting cultures of adult competition and child competition, suggesting that isolation and indifference are brought about at an early age, ultimately producing the rather aloof adults that compile and institute this search party.
Suzy’s family consists of three nearly identical boys and two parents who refer to each other in the outset as “counselor,” announcing their occupations and expertise to Captain Sharp (Bruce Wills), the local symbol of authority. Their conversation are very formal – as is their relationship with their children – and follow a legaleze rhetoric. Throughout, their roles as parents are subsumed by their occupations, illustrated by the nightly conversations that consist of following up on each other’s progress at work. “Did you file the deposition?” “What your motion upheld?” Here, the conversation is pedestrian chit chat, but it also alludes to their respective success. Asking about the deposition is not simply catching up, but an attempt to highlight the other’s mistake. The same goes for the “motion,” which could be easily translated into a question about ability.
Given the family dynamic, there’s little wonder as to why Suzy is labeled “very disturbed”: there is little room for her to exist outside of rhetoric and structure. Her “strangeness” and curiosity leads her parents to purchase a book titled, “What to do with a Very Disturbed Child.” This book offers a commentary on the contemporary self-help epidemic, but it also creates a discourse on responsibility. The main issue within all dynamics in Moonrise Kingdom is the lack of conversation, interaction, and subsequent knowledge of anyone else. No one is aware that Sam is an orphan until they accidentally speak to his foster father because it’s not “written in the register.” No one thought to ask him any questions about his home life that might have led to this discussion. Likewise, Suzy is labeled “very disturbed” because the book suggests that she is. Her outbursts are seen as inexplicable, violent acts, but no one listens when she discusses her feelings. In one of the most mordant moments in the film, Suzy sits in a tub with her arms wrapped around her knees, as her mother (Frances McDormand) bathes her and chides her for running away. Earnestly, Suzy says, “I hate you,” to which her mother responds, “You’re just saying that to hurt me.” “You’re right,” responds Suzy, only to have her mother ask how they’re going to get the fishhooks out of Suzy’s ears. Here, Suzy’s emotions are calmly and harshly on display, but they are blockaded by her mother’s sense of entitlement, position, and purpose.
The lack of interaction within the film is illustrated in each of the relationships above – save Sam and Suzy – but also subtly through Suzy’s family’s mailbox. A very large mailbox, a signifier of popularity, affluence, and grand social networks. (Translated into today’s culture, perhaps the mailbox would be the friend count one possesses on Facebook.) However, the mailbox is nearly empty, holding maybe two letters, and most often, they appear addressed to Suzy – from Sam. (How many of the one-thousand friends on Facebook do you truly know? How much of it is an exercise in superficial popularity?)
Overall, Moonrise Kingdom fashions a funny, poignant, and biting commentary on isolation and the cultural anxiety of social position and role. It’s also a cleverly conceived escape film, in which Anderson includes a number of clever allusions to escape films of the past: The Great Escape, Escape from Alcatraz, Papillon, and most notably Shawshank Redemption. Like last year’s Midnight in Paris, Moonrise Kingdom is cute, clever, and endearing, but also offers a number of layers to sift through.