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Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

"Before viewing" talks introduce the film without spoilers. Watch it, then click on the "After viewing" talk for more. More»» by Randy Heffner

With Moonrise Kingdom’s quirky, crazy story and demeanor, director Wes Anderson delivers an emotionally rich and wry exploration of relationships. Even better,

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"After viewing" talks assume that you have seen the film. They will contain spoilers. More»» by Randy Heffner

Seeing Moonrise Kingdom, I long for the simple, true, mature love that gets lost amidst the dysfunction in our own lives and in the world around us. But even before we get to that, the film is simply fun from open to close, and just watching it I was enriched by its ironic tone, visual flair, and tongue-in-cheek perspectives on life. The film is deeply rich with questions, reversals, and metaphors to help us see. Suzy and Sam are pushed toward angst and frustration from all sides, but are they crazy, or is the world crazy, or both?

Whether their angst comes out as Suzy’s short-temperedness (with others and with herself) or Sam’s sleepwalking and setting fires in the night, no one quite knows what to do with them. In the midst of a world that tells them they’re crazy, they find a common vision of life — and it’s a solid vision, too — and in each other’s understanding ear and heart, they find that they’re not so crazy after all. In their journey of escape together, seeking their moonrise kingdom, they show a higher degree of relational maturity than any of the adults around them. In their maturity, and in their battle for sanity in a dysfunctional world, I find many beautiful moments that I hope will come back to me often and enrich my life by helping me follow a truer vision of real love.

At the center of Moonrise Kingdom, Suzy and Sam scrap and scuffle for sanity. Being people of the non-nonsense sort, they are driven to distraction by the nonsense in the world around them. They know there’s something truer and deeper, and they’re determined to find a way to make it real. Set against them is an array of life’s crazy-making in a variety of forms:

  • Senseless death: We don’t know how Sam became an orphan, but we get the idea that his parents were good to him. We know, at least, that they meant enough to him that he's sad when he looks at the only picture he has of them, remembering his loss.
  • Transactional love: Sam's foster parents have a "care of convenience" for him. It's a transaction, not a relationship. They signed up to have easy foster children, and they don't want him around if it's not easy and convenient. When there's trouble in the relationship, they simply won't invite him back.
  • Well-intentioned, but misguided care: Suzy's parents want to care, but they don't really know how. Their lawyerly, legalistic approach to relationships has led to a family of separate but parallel lives, parents disconnected from kids, Suzy disconnected from her brothers.
  • Bullying peer groups: Sam is despised by both his fellow Khaki Scouts and his fellow foster care residents. He's not like them, so they ridicule and bully him, in effect trying to make him conform to their mold. With Suzy, we don't see so much bullying, but a close look at her classroom attack seems to show that Molly was taunting her.
  • A romantic notion of brotherhood: Scout Master Ward wants to be a good ward for his charges, guiding them in the clean, disciplined, and admirable ways of scouting. He truly cares for Sam (as he does each scout). However, the romantic notions of Camp Ivanhoe are not enough to influence the scouts, led by Redford, to actually treat Sam as a valuable fellow human.
  • The System: Social Services provides a menacing and deadpan embodiment of the coldhearted, tough-as-nails nature of life, of the system and its "safety net" waiting to catch people who fall. It's not an appealing safety net, neither by the Oliver-esque mass orphanage that awaits Sam, nor by the stern, uncompromising, letter-of-the-law manner in which Social Services goes about its business. It's a tough world with hard human consequences that befall when true caring is in short supply.
  • Authority, flawed but sincere: Captain Sharp is the law of the island, but he's not typical hard-nosed cop material. He is flawed, but accepting: he understands when Suzy's mom cuts off their illicit relationship, and he tells her she's doing the right thing. He's open: he can admit his past hurts to Sam. Most of all, he can listen and understand what Sam is going through, even if he feels compelled to adhere to the letter of Social Services' law.
    • But aren't Sam and Suzy crazy themselves?

      The film doesn't give us an entirely clear picture of why Sam and Suzy have their individual troubles, but it gives us plenty. It's easier, from what the film gives us, to put together a story about Sam's troubles. The pain of being an orphan is, in itself, enough to explain a fair degree of oddity. Whether it's this oddity or something else about him, the bullying of the other boys at the foster home and in the scout troop is also enough to drive one crazy. The transactional love of his foster parents must be salt in Sam's wounds, along with them not believing him and favoring the mass of boys that are doing fine over the one that is lost ("it's just not fair to the [other boys]" says Mr. Billingsley after Sam runs away). However the pieces fit, it's no wonder that Sam feels he must get away to stay sane.

      For Suzy, the most obvious source of dysfunction is her parents and the separate lives they lead. From the opening of the film, we see them doing separate things in separate rooms. When they speak, the conversation is couched in legalistic terms, perhaps from years of relational confusion, defensiveness, and inability to communicate. This type of family dysfunction is enough to drive a high level of irritability and frustration. We don't see what sets Suzy off with her classmate or at the family dinner, but we do see enough to think that her being a "troubled child" (as her parents' book says) seems more of her reaction to life around her and not so much a matter of her being a selfish brat.

      Overall, it seems to me that, to the degree that Sam and Suzy seem crazy and out of control, it's because it's normal, so to speak, to rail against the crazy-making in life around us.

      Suzy and Sam's beautiful getaway

      From the moment they meet in the field, Suzy and Sam have wonderful relational moment after wonderful relational moment. From the flowers Sam gives to Suzy, to Suzy putting Sam's pipe away after he falls asleep, to Sam making beetle earrings, to Suzy actually wearing the earrings, to sharing time on the hill overlooking their camp. But the best moments, mixed in with all these, are the ones where they most embody adult maturity, including:

      • After Sam says something about keeping his head cool with leaves under his hat, Suzy makes a comment — a straight-on critique, with a hint of sarcasm — that it "might also help if you didn't wear a fur hat." Rather than being defensive (as Suzy's parents are), Sam is not offended, and he considers that her critique may have merit, saying, "Yeah. . .true."
      • After Sam giggles when Suzy tells about the "troubled child" book, and Suzy snaps at him and runs to zip herself inside the tent, Sam comes to her and offers a real, sincere apology, which she readily and graciously accepts. For Suzy's part, it would have been more mature to not snap and run off as she did, but rather to stay and work through the (potential) offense of Sam's laughter (we don't actually know what made Sam laugh, and neither does she). Nevertheless, their maturity shows in that, in the midst of conflict, they are able to stay focused on the more foundational truth, that they are on the same side — and they let the smaller things go without actually having to talk through every little thing.
      • Sam bares an intimate weakness to Suzy — that he might wet the bed — and Suzy doesn't bat an eye, but accepts him as he is, "warts and all" as they say.
      • In response to Suzy saying, "I think [orphans'] lives are more special," Sam can be quite frank and blunt: "I love you, but you don't know what you're talking about." Suzy takes no offense at all, replying, "I love you, too."
      • Their most intimate sexual moment comes not by Sam pushing himself on Suzy or even asking, but by her offering him permission to touch her chest.
      • When Sam is offered refuge with Captain Sharp, he involves Suzy in the decision, building mutual life together.

      Suzy and Sam's relationship is most directly in contrast, of course, to Suzy's parents' relationship — and it is a stark contrast. Even at the end, the family distance is still there, her mom still yelling up the stairs with the megaphone — otherwise, Sam's presence would be found out before he could sneak out the window. We might wonder why Suzy's brothers don't say anything about Sam's sneaking in but, perhaps due to the family distance, it just never comes up between the brothers and her parents.

      But they're 12-year olds!

      Without all the irony and tongue-in-cheek, without Suzy and Sam's wisdom-beyond-their-years, if Moonrise Kingdom were a straight-up story about a 12-year old couple running away, it would be at least sad, if not tragic. It would be difficult to look back with a smile on all the happenings the film portrayed — particularly Sam being bullied by his peers, Sam's uncaring foster parents, and Sam and Suzy giving away sexual intimacy so young (even if it were only "third base"), thus compromising a deeper, purer, exclusive intimacy they might have had with their eventual life-long partners.

      But there is all that irony and tongue-in-cheek, and that clues us in that the film wants us to look past the surface and see something deeper. By jarring us out of our normal frame of reference, showing us a world where the children act like adults and the adults act like children (even throwing shoes at each other), the film wants us to see things that we might usually miss — or that we know, but we all too easily forget until the film gives us a mirror with which to see ourselves. What things might those be?

      • That it's not age that makes us adults, but rather loving and sacrificial behavior.
      • That self-protection and defensiveness work against love and relational connection.
      • That in mature, mutually caring relationships, admission of weakness is a strength.
      • That love does not grab for or compel its pleasure, it waits and receives what pleasure is given.
      • That loving relationships are about humility, grace, and forgiveness, not about legal and fair transactions.

      Suzy and Sam embody the positive sides of all of these; her parents embody the negative side of most of them. By playfully inverting adult and child roles, Moonrise Kingdom makes these beautiful aspects of love stand out. If it were adults that ran off, no one would go chasing, and we wouldn't have the hunt for Sam and Suzy, around which the film's themes revolve. By being so creatively fun throughout, the film puts us in a receptive mood for taking these things to heart — as indeed some of the characters in the film do: the scout troop turns to help Sam and Suzy, her mom breaks it off with Captain Sharp, her parents realize their failings (in the "We're all they've got" — "It's not enough" exchange).

      I hope I can be a bit more of an adult by learning from Suzy and Sam.

      • Opening and closing the film with the educational record about orchestras, showing the separate parts of the orchestra then showing how they all work together — it shows the disconnectedness of Suzy's family as it sets (and then returns as a reminder to) the theme of harmony and all the parts working together against the "panning from room to room" backdrop showing the family's disparate individual directions.
      • Suzy's books — starting with Shelly and the Secret Universe at the film's opening — each of which is a jewel adorning a different aspect of Suzy's (and Sam's) milieu, even if, with some of them, it is a sort of blue, sad jewel.
      • Suzy's binoculars, and the reason she gives for them ("it helps me see things closer, even if they're not very far away") — the ability to see closer, to see truer what's right before us, is a magic power indeed, important for reading the film and for staying sane in a crazy world.
      • When Suzy reads Sam's letter, sitting in the school bus stop booth, with her box of Sam letters marked "private" on her lap, she looks up, directly at us with a stern look — she could be saying a variety of things with her look, but it seems a challenging look to me, as if she's figuring we might be just more of the crazy judgment in her life.
      • Camp Ivanhoe and its literary reference (to Sir Walter Scott's novel, "Ivanhoe") — it strengthens the image of scouting as a Romantic notion of chivalry and goodness (a good thing in itself, but too often not reality), which is well-reinforced by Scout Master Ward's attitude, concern, and behavior throughout.
      • New Penzance Island and its literary reference (to the Gilbert and Sullivan opera "The Pirates of Penzance") — the opera, with compassion to orphans as a major theme, is farcical and fun like the film (and has some other parallels as well, including pursuit of love and a father frustrating a child's desired marriage).
      • Sam's foster care "brothers" are all dressed in the jeans & white t-shirts style of the tough guy, making Sam stick out like a sore thumb in his gray coveralls — it quickly emphasizes not only Sam's isolation, but also that Sam doesn't buy in to the expected stereotypes of what he ought to be like.
      • Similarly, Suzy's differentness and non-conformity shows at school, where Suzy wears a red plaid dress while all her classmates wear blue plaid.
      • Mr. Billingsley's matter-of-fact tone as he says they cannot invite Sam back — his tone is so from-left-field, and Captain Sharp's response so appropriate, that we feel the Billingsley's lack of care as shocking and foreign.
      • The contrast between the Billingsley's "not inviting Sam back" and Sam, not yet knowing this, responding to Suzy's question about his foster parents by saying, "I feel we're in a real family now" — Sam really wants to believe he's cared for.
      • After the phone call with Social Services, Social Services pounds the stamp down on the ink pad and pounds it down on Sam's file, then Social Services is on to the next case — a wonderful touch with one of the quintessential images of government bureaucracy.
      • The marching boots soundtrack playing as we see rows and rows of orphans seated for their Christmas dinner — it provides the right tone for a mass orphanage, and even brings to mind visions of Nazi soldiers and death camps.
      • Alexandre Desplat's music — all throughout the film, the music perfectly embodies the tone of the film.
      • Adam Stockhausen's production design — the sets and colors also match wonderfully the film's farcical and ironical tone.
      • Robert Yeoman's cinematography — wonderful shots and framing throughout.
      • The closure Sam and Suzy make just before they would jump from the church steeple, with him thanking her for marrying him and their electric kiss.
      • Any number of small details that add irony or emphasis or just plain fun:
        • In the first Sam-to-Suzy letter we see, his name is pre-printed; he has personalized stationery — where does that come from?
        • The contrast between Suzy on top of the house, in the rain, looking with her binoculars, and her brothers in the house, feeding their faces, complaining of the rain — Suzy's not shy of being out in it and facing the mess of life directly.
        • On Sam's scout registration card, it says "emergency contact: none" — a tongue-in-cheek reference to how alone Sam is.
        • When Captain Sharp is talking to the priest and two nuns, one of the nuns is barefoot.
        • When Suzy is "singing" in the pageant, her mouthing seems to not match what's being sung — and she has a rather harsh expression.
        • When Sam and Suzy are at the top of the cliff where Redford's motorcycle is stuck, the side of the cliff is painted with the raccoon emblem of the Khaki Scouts (perhaps the raccoon emblem is taken from the Chickchaws).
        • As Sam makes his way from the church to Suzy's dressing room, his little inspection of the elephant's trunk.
        • Suzy's way of saying, "I got hit in the mirror."
        • Suzy's little, "Oh, thank you," when Sam gives her flowers.
        • When we see Social Services on the phone, the window in the wall behind shows a tall and solid line of filing cabinets, and there are more filing cabinets beside her.
        • The paper mache Suzy (and it's reference to Ferris Bueller's Day Off).
        • The fact that there's a chimney in Captain Sharp's mobile home trailer.
        • Sam sitting up after being struck by lightning, taking his glasses off and giving them a quick blow, after which his glasses are nearly completely clean.
        • When Redford has Suzy's binoculars, and Sam and Redford's face off is getting closer to coming to blows, the soundtrack has only a high-pitched squeal that slowly increases in volume until Sam runs to attack.
        • When the narrator gives us the 4 a.m. weather report, the light switch next to the camera.
        • The contrast of the trampoline jumper with Sam and Suzy "seriously" talking about whether to go through with their wedding.
        • The performance of "Noye's Fludde" (a repeat of the previous year's summer pageant) is cancelled because of a rain storm.
        • When Social Services enters the church, we see that, under her blue cape, it is lined with bright red, like Dracula's cape.
        • The church steeple on top of the Volkswagen beetle, making it look like some sort of rocket car.
        • When the narrator is telling of the storm's aftermath, saying it lingered over six high tides, in the background there is a basketball backboard sticking up barely above the water level.
        • When Scout Master Ward is giving his final Scout Master's Log entry, we see that, on his desk next to the tape recorder is a picture of Becky (the switchboard operator). Earlier in the film, it had been a picture of Commander Pierce (the head honcho at Fort Lebanon).
        • Half-way through the credits, there begins an instrument-by-instrument narration of how Alexandre Desplat constructed the music for Moonrise Kingdom.

      Screenshots and dialog copyright © 2012 by the filmmakers.

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