Moonrise Kingdom might as well be the end of the earth for Suzy Bishop (Kara Wayward) and Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman), 12-year-old misfits who, a year earlier, recognized each other instantly as kindred spirits. What kind of bird are you? demands Sam when he first lays eyes on her, after trespassing into the girls' dressing room before a church production of Noye's Fludde, Benjamin Britten's Renaissance-style opera intended to be performed by amateurs. (Answer: a raven.)
From there on out, Suzy and Sam are devoted but chaste lovers, communicating via handwritten letter delivered by post. On monogrammed stationery, they concoct a detailed but shortsighted plan to run away together, sending the small population of fictional New Penzance Island into a panic. They get as far as the film's titular cove before the reality of their youthful limitations sets in, but remain firmly united in their demand for emancipation from the fumbling grown-ups who don't know (or don't care) what to do with them.
Neither preteen is troubled in the We Need to Talk about Kevin sense, though Suzy is prone to fits of rage and, at least in once instance, violence. In each other's company alone, they are the picture of altruism and good manners. When they meet at the end of the dirt path which has not got any name on it to start their journey, Sam greets Suzy with a bouquet of wildflowers and beef jerky; later, Suzy reads Sam to sleep, careful to remove the smoking pipe from his mouth after he dozes off.
Devotees of Wes Anderson (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums), who reunited with Roman Coppola (The Darjeeling Limited) to write the screenplay, will welcome unapologetically precious, obsessively constructed costumes and sets, and a painstakingly curated soundtrack - with Britten standing in for Mark Mothersbaugh and Hank Williams where the Kinks used to be. Marking his fifth collaboration with Anderson, Bill Murray is Suzy's borderline suicidal, barely-there father; Jason Schwartzmann -- another regular -- appears as a supercharged scoutmaster with a flair for ceremony. Frances McDormand, who makes her Anderson debut as a goodhearted but nonetheless deeply flawed wife and mother, is right at home in Moonrise Kindgom. Bruce Willis is slightly less so as the melancholic town sheriff, but he adds more than he takes away.
Still, with every new entry in Anderson's unmistakably styled repertoire, there comes an elevated risk of cast assignments functioning as little more than high-impact props: The arrival of a certain actor no more or less an announcement of Anderson's fastidious aesthetic sensibilities than a left-handed scissor hanging perfectly straight from a nail on a kitchen wall.
In Moonrise Kingdom, Harvey Keitel and -- to a lesser degree -- Tilda Swinton are such token casting coups: Swinton is given a slightly more robust character (and a kickass outfit), but not a name; she's referenced in the movie and the credits as Social Services. Little is required of either actor -- it seems enough for Anderson that audiences will chuckle with delight when they appear: Oh, look - it's Tilda Swinton/Harvey Keitel!
Fortunately for everyone concerned, the two marvelous leads -- both newcomers in the strictest sense -- are too young and inexperienced to be taken by the meta-charms of appearing in a Wes Anderson movie. This, of course, was no accident. Free of the distancing self-awareness burdening the adult actors' winking performances (we're looking at you, Ed Norton), the innocents imbue Moonrise Kingdom with a warmth and sincerity it desperately needs. (That said, one would never guess that both actors have barely any professional training, and little more experience than community theater.)
Fantastic Mr. Fox -- Anderson's last film, and his only animated to date -- seems to have a holdover influence on Moonrise Kingdom. Defiantly anti-naturalistic inside and out, Anderson's kingdom is a paranormal one: where adolescent scouts display military-grade marksmanship and wilderness survival skills, where the costume designs at a church pageant could win Academy Awards, and where a thick blanket of shimmering blue eyeshadow is unmoved by tears, rain, or a dip in Narragansett Bay.
The best contemporary animated films (Mr. Fox included) all have a shot or two lifelike enough that you almost believe you are looking at live action. A flare-lit twilight canoe caravan in Moonrise Kingdom recalls such scenes -- it's almost too perfect to be real, but too beautiful not to be.
The same can be said of Moonrise Kingdom itself. More than once the film nearly chokes on its own twee, but here -- perhaps more than ever -- Anderson gives his story a real beating heart and his characters some (limited) room to breathe. Suzy and Sam's nearly platonic love may not be the stuff of legend, but there's more than enough to wrap your arms around.