Suzy’s binoculars and Wes Anderson’s camera
In Wes Anderson’s latest film, Moonrise Kingdom, “emotionally disturbed” 12-year-olds Suzy and Sam run away from their depressing and angst-ridden 1965-era lives to be with each other out in the open air of a New England island. Their plan doesn’t have much of a future, but the brevity of their escape makes it all the sweeter. Their runaway kingdom doesn’t fall victim to boredom. Its patterns don’t become rote or mechanical. Always on the run, one step ahead of the law and a melodramatic social services worker dressed to vaudevillian villain perfection, our heroic “tweens” hover in a state of latency — no longer children, but not yet adults.
The film begins with, and keeps returning to, the archetypal flood myth — Sam first sees Suzy when the latter is playing a raven in a summer production of Noye’s Flood. This mythic story not only drives the plot forward with its promise of a disastrous and world-changing flood/denouement, but it also introduces the themes of coupling, mating, and having sex which will develop into tropes of adulthood. The film is held together by relationships and perspectives — distances, intimacies, nearness and farness. Sex, though only hinted at cartoonishly by the Noah performance, is prevalent for the older set of characters (a dusty and wrung out crew including Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, and Bruce Willis). Hardly passionate or even sexy, sex for these grown ups is old and tired, a burdensome secret, an unuttered word separating twin beds.
For Sam and Suzy however, intimacy is king though they do inch closer to becoming sexual beings i.e. adults. Initially avoiding the immediacy of sex, their courtship occurs long distance as they pen letters back and forth to one another. Presented in a montage, we hear their voices speak of the very real and grown-up-sized pain of their otherwise childish lives. They feel cooped up, trapped, bored, lonely. They don’t play well with others. Suzy’s parents don’t understand her. Sam’s parents are dead and he has to make his way through the foster system. Their insights and advice to one another are at once touchingly appropriate and unintentionally silly. They are there for one another in genuinely meaningful ways, but they are also very much still children despite the formality of their missives’ greetings and closings. Clearly, they know the patterns of adult relations, but they are still playing in these forms rather than living in them, and the structures remain a bit ill-fitting.
When they run away together, issues of intimacy and adult vs. child continue to unfurl. Anderson’s camera eye constantly places our little lovers in shots that separate them in perfect symmetry. Like middle schoolers across the dance floor they are attracted to each other, but scared, unsure — a mysterious gulf between them. And both characters seem to be more comfortable with distance. Suzy is shielded behind her power of quiet sight and her trusty binoculars. Sam, a seer as well, is a talented painter of “mostly landscapes, some nudes.” Together they enter a more adult context as a couple against the world that only further highlights how unprepared they are for that adventure. Their beach blanket makeout scene, for example, is not all that sexy. Suzy apologizes for the breasts that have not yet made themselves known. Sam spits with an almost too comical “ptooohey” sound after they kiss with tongues — he had some sand in his mouth.
Still with the adults’ ho-hum lives as a backdrop, the children’s brief escape builds perspective. We imagine as children that growing up will be an answer that gives us voice and meaning and purpose, but the grown figures in Moonrise Kingdom are lost, searching just like the children, differing only in that they are closer to giving up. The children long to be adults. The adults calcifying in their present long to be youthful and effective. The film builds itself through this parallax comparing distance and perspective around that magical turning point of becoming/adult, loss of innocence, Summer’s end, loss of virginity.
Upon going through a commitment ceremony, if not lawful wedding with Sam, Suzy forgets her super power, loses her eyes, by leaving behind her binoculars. If we agree with Freud that there are no accidents, does this mistake show that upon entry into an adult institution Suzy immediately loses her fantasy and her special power? A dark reading at best. However, leaving the binoculars also hinders the couple’s escape, so perhaps the “forgetting” marks Suzy’s desire to linger in childhood a little longer. Her pretend marriage helping her understand that realistically she needs more time. The film seems to stay appropriately ambiguous on this point, pushing the boundaries of that in-between a little longer. All I know is when I left the theater after watching Moonrise Kingdom that day, I (30 years old) fell in the parking lot and skinned my knee like I had done so often on elementary school blacktops. This too seemed Freudian, Anderson-esque, and an entirely appropriate epilogue to a movie about how we live through the practice of looking forward and looking back.
Ana Holguin writes PopHeart for The Idler.