In the immaculately designed, emotionally charged bubble filmmaker Wes Anderson builds around the 1965 New England summer, first love blooms. Sam (Jared Gilman) is an orphan at the mercy of foster parents and his Scout troop. Suzy (Kara Hayward) lives in a lighthouse with three younger brothers, two lawyer parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) and an urge to bust free. Sam, she decides, is her man. No one understands their attraction. Hell, they're both 12. He's a string bean in thick glasses, and she's cool enough to wear eyeliner. But Anderson, who wrote the resonant script with Roman Coppola, knows their secret hearts. So when the kids run away to an island they call Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson is right there with them. And thanks to this enchanted ride of a movie, so are we.
Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson's seventh feature, is unlikely to convert those who believe the Texas-born filmmaker is merely a skilled miniaturist. If mannerism is all you see in Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic, The Darjeeling Limited and the animated Fantastic Mr. Fox, go lap up the latest big-studio drool. To my mind, Anderson is oxygen in a Hollywood choking from chasing its own greed-driven tail.
Moonrise Kingdom shows a director growing in confidence and maturity. Take the remarkable scene, set on a daylight beach, in which Sam and Suzy first kiss – using tongues and groping awkwardly. Given the underage actors, the moment could have been borderline kiddie porn. But Anderson handles it with a sensitivity and an unembarrassed openness that evoke the style of François Truffaut, in classics such as The 400 Blows and Small Change. Anderson is also expert at using humor as a gateway to deeper feelings. When Suzy mentions love, Sam is pleased but exasperated ("You don't know what you're talking about"). Newcomers Gilman and Hayward stay allergic to sweet and cute, catching the exhilaration and cartwheeling confusion of being young and in thrall to each other.
Adults soon intrude on their paradise. There's a hurricane coming, announces the film's narrator (a delightful Bob Balaban). The scoutmaster (an engagingly wacked-out Edward Norton) organizes a search party with the help of his chief (Harvey Keitel) and cousin Ben, a scam artist in scout's clothing played by a stellar Jason Schwartzman, evoking his iconic role as Max Fischer in Rushmore. The police captain (a becomingly non-macho Bruce Willis) is also on the case, pressured by Suzy's mom, with whom he's having an affair.
The top-tier cast, including Tilda Swinton as a character called Social Services, may be star overload, but each actor performs small miracles. Murray and McDormand excel at showing a faltering marriage in microcosm. "Stop feeling sorry for yourself," she tells her husband, each in a separate bed. "Why?" says he, instilling one word with a lifetime of meaning. On children, they're agreed: "We're all they have, and it's not enough."
As the hurricane whips up a perhaps too busy climax, Anderson links the everyday and the extraordinary with virtuoso artistry. Shot with a poet's eye by Robert Yeoman and lifted by an Alexandre Desplat score that samples Mozart, Hank Williams and Benjamin Britten, the hilarious and heartfelt Moonrise Kingdom is a consistent pleasure. By evoking the joys and terrors of childhood, it reminds us how to be alive.