Moonrise Kingdom: Summer Camp, Wes Anderson-Style

Every Wes Anderson film creates a world of its own. Movies like Rushmore and The Darjeeling Limited take familiar people and situations and drop them into the unknown. This is Anderson’s genius; he transforms familiarity into hyperreality (or unreality in some cases). Arguably, the best genre filmmakers are able to build unpredictability out of familiarity. Anderson’s latest, Moonrise Kingdom, draws from numerous genres such as the summer camp comedy, family melodrama, and the adventure film in order to create a unique experience.

The film takes place in 1965 on a New England island called Black Beacon Sound. This narrow, 16-mile-long strip has some general residents as well as Camp Ivanhoe — home to the Khaki Scouts led by Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton). One of the scouts, Sam (Jared Gilman), takes it upon himself to sneak away during the night. Another young islander, Suzy (Kara Hayward), also ran away from her parent’s home around the same time. The island police (Bruce Willis as Captain Sharp), whose headquarters is a small shack at the end of a dock on the ocean, are promptly alerted and a search begins.
Sam corresponded with Suzy as a pen pal for some time — both have serious problems. Sam’s parents recently died and his foster parents refuse his return. The rest of the Khaki Scouts suspect Sam may suffer from a mental illness — they keep an eye on him while packing weapons. Suzy’s parents (brilliantly played by Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) have lost touch with Suzy (as well as each other). In addition to the detachment from her parents, Suzy suffers from uncontrollable fits of anger. A cute love story builds as we see how Sam and Suzy manage to balance each other out.

Both children are running from shaky backgrounds in hopes of finding stability elsewhere. Sam leaves the summer camp while Suzy escapes her deceptively stable household. Here we see a combination of genres, the summer camp film (Sam leaving camp) with the family melodrama (Suzy fleeing family issues). Mix that with a bit of adventure and a never-ending supply of quirky characters from the mind of Wes Anderson and you’ve got a good idea of what is going on here. Constantly on the move both physically and psychologically, each character keeps the narrative flowing. There really are not many stable relationships on the island, which makes Sam and Suzy’s quest a unique one.

The problem at Black Beacon Sound is that the kids have their heads on straight and the adults do not. As with many summer camp films, the protagonists are children who usually have to overcome some kind of obstacle perpetuated by overbearing camp counselors. This works well with the family melodrama tropes that deal with mending broken families. Sam must fill a void left by his parents while Suzy yearns to find a connection with her family. Seeking out each other in order to satisfy these needs is not an easy task because they are constantly being pursued. Engaging in hijinks with fear of being caught is a common trope in summer camp films. Moonrise Kingdom carries these elements but uses the runaway children to signify much bigger problems than defying grown-ups. Sam and Suzy search for something pure — a true connection.

Watching the traile, Moonrise Kingdom may look like a throwback to summer camp films of the 1990s. If anything, though, Anderson’s new offering more resembles The Graduate (though I won’t provide spoilers as to why). Of course, instead of adults this love story is about children. Intelligence is inverted in this film, which is common in the summer camp genre. The kids have love figured out while the adults do not.

This film also emphasizes the beautiful landscapes, which is something a genre film like Heavyweights does not. Summer camp films often take their rugged, outdoor location for granted. Moonrise Kingdom appreciates its location in the way John Ford did with his Westerns by filming breathtaking wide shots in Monument Valley. The beautiful, secluded landscapes in Anderson’s film signify the separation the two children seek from their everyday lives as well as the beauty of the kind of life they aspire to achieve.

Those looking for a new summer camp film in the traditional sense may be disappointed. However,  there is plenty to like in Moonrise Kingdom, from Anderson’s quirky characters (played by a wide range of great actors) to the setting and parallels to classic narratives. Anderson certainly has his own genre, his films being difficult to classify or compare with those of any other director working today. Fans of his work will be delighted and those looking for something new should be pleasantly surprised.