The contradiction inherent to all Wes Anderson films — the juxtaposition of the meticulous artificiality of the settings and the passionately wistful emotions that are longing to burst free — is at its most effective in a while in "Moonrise Kingdom."
The director and co-writer's tale of first love, filled with recognizable adolescent angst and naive fumblings, feels at once deeply personal (and, indeed, it was inspired by a boyhood crush of his own) and universally relatable. Of course, it features the fetishistic obsession with production and costume design that is his trademark; nothing ever happens by accident in Anderson's films, which are frequently and accurately described as dollhouses or dioramas. Despite its rigid structure, which includes exact tracking shots from room to room or person to person, the look of the film is alive and inviting, the work of Anderson's usual director of photography Robert Yeoman.
If you love Wes Anderson, you'll love this: The best of what he can do is vibrantly on display. The screenplay, which he co-wrote with Roman Coppola, has resulted in his sweetest and most sincere live-action movie since the one that remains his best, 1998's "Rushmore" ("Fantastic Mr. Fox," from 2009, which he crafted through painstaking stop-motion animation, was also a real charmer).
But beneath all the mid-century nostalgia, the tightly framed shots of quirkily decorated rooms, lies an innocent and vulnerable beating heart. In his post-"Rushmore" films — especially "The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou" and "The Darjeeling Limited" — Anderson seemed too preoccupied with all the clutter, all the idiosyncratic doo-dads that defined his characters at the expense of character development itself. With "Moonrise Kingdom," he's recaptured that perfect balance of style and substance.
And, similar to "Rushmore," it has precocious, misunderstood young people at the center of its precise yet off-kilter world. Newcomers Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward star as Sam and Suzy, 12-year-old loners who find each other and run away together at the end of summer 1965. Sam, an orphan, flees his Boy Scout-style troupe of Khaki Scouts (Edward Norton plays their loyal leader); Suzy, the only daughter and eldest child of married lawyers who ignore each other (Anderson regular Bill Murray and Frances McDormand), feels neglected and has been acting out.
Trouble is, these two have nowhere to go — they live on the insular New England island of New Penzance, a rocky, rugged place with no paved roads and only one phone — and a storm of epic proportions is on its way. We know this because every once in a while, Bob Balaban pops up, bundled in weather-appropriate gear as the film's narrator who explains not only the history of this remote, beautiful place but also what's in store. This may sound like a cutesy, self-conscious narrative device, but Balaban is so unassuming (and informative to boot!) that you'll be happy to see him each time he arrives.
Still, Sam and Suzy have packed up all the items they think they need to start a new life together. This includes camping supplies (his) and plenty of books, a record player and a kitten (hers). Gilman and Hayward nicely underplay their emotions at first as two sad, socially awkward kids tenderly feeling each other out, but the way Anderson and Coppola unveil their backstories in time gives them unexpected complexity. These flashbacks are among the elements that infuse "Moonrise Kingdom" with both absurd humor and an engrossing fluidity; the letters Sam and Suzy wrote to each other over the year they planned their escape are filled with a breathless excitement, as if they can't wait for forever to start now.
There's still hope for them — that's what's thrilling. You almost long to protect these two once you get to know the adults who are scrambling around trying to find them, including Bruce Willis as the island's lonely sheriff and Tilda Swinton as the all-business social services worker known only as Social Services. The grown-ups don't provide much heft, especially toward the end, but maybe that was intentional to make the kids' relationship stand out that much more.
Longtime Anderson friend and collaborator Jason Schwartzman rounds out the excellent supporting cast as the fast-talking, highly efficient scout leader who helps Sam and Suzy with their plan; the performance will put a familiar smile on your face as it suggests who "Rushmore's" Max Fischer might have grown up to become.
"Moonrise Kingdom," a Focus Features release, is rated PG-13 for sexual content and smoking. Running time: 94 minutes.