Wes Anderson has captured a pastel-colored moment in time, wrought with the enchantment of a childhood summer and the delights of young love, in his film Moonrise Kingdom. The quintessentially Andersonian landscape of New Penzance in New England—with unobstructed views of a natural world sprinkled with quirks like a fogged-in lighthouse and a house with its own crows nest—is secluded in its own microcosmic universe. It sits at the precipice of a mountainous love between Sam Shukusky and Suzy Bishop, the diligent Khaki Scout and the bookish introvert; but the key to Anderson’s film is that he pushes past the pleasantries of innocent love into a realm much darker and visceral than is let on by his color-saturated environment and playful score. There is no denying that watching Anderson’s film feels like a warm welcome back into childhood, but not readily apparent are the undertones that bring this childhood innocence into question.
The question, then, is what exactly are these ‘undertones’ and how do they function in Anderson’s world?
Throughout the film, there is no denying the clear depiction of children (of which there are many) in an adult manner. From the outset of the film, nearly every aspect about the life of an average child is given an adult twist, one of the best examples being Camp Ivanhoe, the summer home of the protagonist. From the events in the scene itself to the very movements of the camera, the reveille of Anderson’s Camp Ivanhoe manifests itself to us viewers as a military encampment. Beneath the images are the sounds of drums, beating a tune that evokes the marching of feet towards a battle; and in essence, these young children are marching towards a battle of sorts. What lies ahead, what Anderson seeks to inform us about throughout his film, is oncoming adolescence and eventually adulthood: they face a crusade against their childhood where the spoils of war will be the attainment of authentic, mature experience. These children, like soldiers, seek excellence in fulfilling their duties, but their real duty is simply to grow up. However, the greater disparity arises when we realize that these children have essentially already matured. Physically they are young but their intentions are fully-grown. These children have willingly sacrificed their boyhood—consciously chosen to behave not like the children they are but like the adults that they think embody nobility and stature—to escape what they see as confines and what adults see as protection.
There is an almost paradoxical relationship occurring here, between feelings of dissatisfaction and responsibility to chivalry, which permeates all of Anderson’s film and it is the children who (unknowingly) represent this tug-of-war best. The kids in Moonrise Kingdom seem desperate to act like adults, but why? Their reasons—be it respect, admiration, or integrity perhaps—are severely misguided. They are ignorant to the reality of adulthood, fooling themselves with chivalric facades and notions of knightliness, and from that ignorance spring warped images of what life as an adult provides: freedom, liberation, power. But where there is freedom and power there is responsibility and hardship too, and most of the adults in the film know all too well of this fact, feeling so lost that they cling to the only thing they can, their work. Suzy’s parents converse in legal tongues, thinking not of their children as they lie awake at night but of the duty they feel they have to their work; and the woman who hopes to send Sam to an orphanage cannot escape the only name she merits, “Social Services.” But even while these characters epitomize adult discontent, there is an air of aristocracy to the way they live. As the idyllic world Anderson has created for them begins to shatter to pieces—broken marriages, illicit affairs, and “troubled” children all surfacing in the rubble—these adults retain what little dignity they have and hold their courtly heads high.
So then what about the children? The reality is that these discontented boys will never understand the reality that lies in their future because the adults that surround them are far too honorable to let real affliction affect them outwardly. What Anderson builds is a cycle wherein the children’s perceptions of adulthood are incongruous with the truth of New Penzance’s adults, but by no fault of their own; they exist in a world that is aristocratic in nature, priming them to be blind to authentic experience even when it is right in front of them.
In the article “Wes Anderson’s World,” author Michael Chabon sheds light on this very idea as he teases out what he perceives to be the role of children when they begin to assert themselves in a world that “is so big, so complicated, [and] so replete with marvels and surprises.” But he does not stop at simply recognizing these intricacies, he explains that although reality offers nuanced experiences, it is still undeniably and “irretrievably broken.” To him, it is as children that we are faced with this massive truth and are tasked with sifting through an already shattered world that seems to offer little more than “bitter lessons” to our young, malleable minds. It only is when we stare out at the tangled image of life in front of us that something stares back at us, perhaps “an intimation of vanished glory, of lost wholeness, a memory of the world unbroken” (Chabon). Only by looking at the mess, at the inevitable pitfalls of human experience that are faithful to our truer existence, do we realize there must have been a time when people lived in a world undamaged. It is an acknowledgement of these problems that creates authenticity within our sphere of human existence, and when we see the truth in our downfalls, we just may find that we are capable of fixing the world again. Anderson has approached this idea cautiously though. His chivalric Khaki Scouts do not see a damaged world, they see something noble and faultless that adheres to the romanticized life they seek to live and that the adults in the film strive to protect.
Aside from the bystanders in Moonrise Kingdom though, the primary characters Sam and Suzy are nourished in their adventures by their own dissatisfaction with a broken world, and what they imagine is far beyond repair and not worth restoring. Anderson chooses to pinpoint a moment in Sam and Suzy’s lives when they have each been so abused by their reality that they feel helpless, at the mercy of their seemingly uncontrollable existence. But these feelings are isolated within the minds of each character. It is only when their unhappy realities intersect that a more frightening beast begins to grow in their collective mind. Initially full of a cynicism that was catalyzed by their individual social experiences, Sam and Suzy have each met their equal. They are both the perfect match and the most dangerous couple, their chaotic beliefs accentuated by their naivety and youth and therefore increasingly at the will of their unstoppable notions about life: the chaos derives from their union. Sam and Suzy do not have collective courage that helps them face their realities, they have a shared desire to retreat into their wild imaginings with no one but each other, seeking to become the Adam and Eve of a world that cannot hurt them anymore.
The words of Manohla Dargis of the New York Times resonate with this very idea of worldly creation when she explains that by running away, Sam and Suzy “construct a world parallel to the larger one, carving out an intensely individual space and defining themselves through their shared visions and actions, which means that the movie is also very much about creation as an act of self-creation.” This concept of “creation” as put forth by Dargis represents Sam and Suzy’s actions in a positive light and pins them as individuals so in tune with their emotions that they are able to forge a new, Edenic life away from the prying eyes of a society that cannot appreciate their eccentricities. But the only thing that makes Sam and Suzy’s creation ‘Edenic’ is its evasion of the kinds of struggles that afflict the real world.
In this sense, Sam and Suzy’s “creation” is broken, twisted, and incomplete. They have not built a paradise of freedom and maturity, they’ve built a teetering tree house just like that from Camp Ivanhoe, bound to fall because of the height of their expectations. In seeking to build a world “parallel to the larger one,” they’ve taken a misrepresented reality and removed the aspects that make it authentically human; they’ve removed the inevitable struggle of life, core to every human experience, and forged a utopia to escape to. They desire a world where they are free to act as they choose and love each other completely, both of which are very idealistic, adult desires. But they fail in their creation because they, as children, cannot begin to understand what adulthood (or even adolescence) entails.
At this point we might ask ourselves, why complement the beauty of a Wes Anderson world with these themes of dissatisfaction, cynicism, and other such concepts so juxtaposed to the saturated images that flash across the screen? Perhaps to show us, the viewers who are so eager for an uplifting movie that we are blind to the beauty and grandeur of our own reality, condemned to feel constantly discontented with the small imperfections in our world. It seems almost unfair to let downtrodden parents, duty-obsessed campers, and unknowingly detrimental lovers stumble around in the alluring environment of New Penzance, unappreciative of what is around them; but we have no right to protest because we are those characters, living lives separate from our reality, disconnected from our own experience.
But why is this? If we take as true that our individual lives have more to offer than what we see as a damaged and therefore irreparable reality, why does Anderson think we can’t see these greater splendors of existence?
Throughout generations our culture has been the locus of a power struggle between two opposing forces: the maturation of societies as they become accepting and therefore liberated, and a regression of society towards a closed-mindedness that is mirrored in the love story of Sam and Suzy. Their discontent is our societal discontent, spurred on by the very growth of culture that we praise for making us prosperous. John Berger, in an essay on the relationship between painter and model, begins by saying that “Today images abound everywhere. Never has so much been depicted and watched.” Our social growth is coupled with technological growth, which are then both coupled with social decay as a result of that constant stimulation. We are left craving more of what we already have, “and this is precisely what the present system’s mythology continually needs to exploit. It turns appearances into refractions, like mirages: refractions not of light but of appetite, in fact a single appetite, the appetite for more” (Berger).
This idea of “mythology” is deeply rooted throughout centuries and across cultures, but the seemingly benign word is actually far less distant from where we are today. What mythologies can do is offer lenses through which we can see different realities than our own, realities that appear so real that they can detach us from anything actual in life. The stories of heroic Odysseus or conniving Zeus, of the love between Orpheus and Eurydice or Eros and Psyche—they appear to some as tales to dismiss but to others as truths to blindly accept. Sam and Suzy sit on a treasure trove of mythological acceptance, rejecting the real world and believing wholly in the power of their created paradise; and, what Berger calls our “present system’s mythology” is essentially a culture that is teeming with manipulable Sams and Suzys, or more importantly, a culture that rests on a minefield of dissatisfaction.
It is because of this that we are so deeply disembodied from experience and that we’ve lost the ability to live in our own space. Sam and Suzy, too, felt trapped in their childhood, physically restrained by a Khaki Scout uniform and a raven costume, and how do they free themselves? By removing their clothes (the physical manifestation of their youth and therefore their discontent) and dancing together in an act of metaphorical consummation. But even in their blissful paradise, the two lovers are disillusioned. They have forged a new life but in doing so, separated themselves from the world entirely, both liberated and trapped by their Mile 3.25 Tidal Inlet. In Berger’s words, what is created is “not, as claimed, a sense of freedom (the so-called freedom of choice) but a profound isolation,” which is a void our culture rushes to fill not with substantial human experience but with “the not-yet-real, the virtual, the next purchase.”
This complex web of chivalry, discontent, and cynicism may appear to digress too far from the roads of New Penzance, and this is understandable. It is not my place to deny that Anderson’s film receives the fairytale treatment, wrapping itself up with a happy ending: Sam and Suzy saved from the deluge that their chaotic love metaphorically created, Sam with a new father and Suzy home again in her reading niche. It’s undeniably beautiful to see the two together at last after their love has been tested throughout their adventures. But what I would argue is far more beautiful than their love is the realization of their youth. There is no romantic kiss, not even an embrace before Sam escapes through the window in the final scene; but what does exist in the space between Sam and Suzy’s final gaze is the fact of the reconciliation between the lovers and the childhood they were so out of touch with at the start of the film.
In ending this way, Anderson has reaffirmed his creation of a world that is idealized and, realistically, unachievable. Even so, this little pocket of bliss reminds us that just like a child seeking answers in a confusing world, Anderson has begun the process of recreating the jigsaw puzzle that our reality has become. With Moonrise Kingdom Anderson, “passing among the scattered pieces of that great overturned jigsaw puzzle, start[s] to pick up a piece here, a piece there, with a vague yet irresistible notion that perhaps something might be done about putting the thing back together again,” that he might be able “to build a little world of [his] own. A scale model of that mysterious original, unbroken, half—remembered” (Chabon).Berger, John. “Steps Toward A Small Theory of the Visible.” The Shape of a Pocket, Bloomsbury Paperbacks, 2014, pp. 1-5. Brody, Richard. “What to See This Weekend: ‘Moonrise Kingdom," Twice.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 20 June 2017. Chabon, Michael. “Wes Anderson's Worlds.” The New York Review of Books, 31 Jan. 2013. Dargis, Manohla. “Scouting Out a Paradise: Books, Music and No Adults.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 24 May 2012.