By Matt Neufeld
There are hundreds and hundreds of coming-of-age films through the decades, of course, and several factors repeatedly appear in the lesser pictures in this genre that bring many of these movies down to mediocre and cookie-cutter patterns of un-original similarity: a tired use of the same old broad humor; a baffling inability to see the world accurately through the eyes of a child or a teenager; overly-dramatic and overly dire storylines that exaggerate life experiences to the extreme and to the point of disbelief; a reliance on cliched plot devices; ridiculously broad characterizations of adults simply to make a simple point; and, closely related to point number two, a surprising inability to re-create the unique and magical fantasy world that children and teens occupy, a world that adults continue to mis-understand, and yet is a natural story arch that sets up one of the major conflicts in coming-of-age stories.
Yes, it’s indeed especially surprising that producers, writers and directors continually fumble these elements in this particular genre. Why should that be surprising, considering that filmmakers continually fumble the ball in literally every other genre? Because you would think–incorrectly, of course, but you’d think it nonetheless–that every person, even the most bottom-line-oriented, unoriginal hack producer, writer and director, would simply remember aspects of their own childhoods, and their own coming-of-age experiences, for coming-of-age films. You’d think that anyone could call up from their collective memories the idiosyncracies and conflicts and stories and personalities and difficulties and hardships that come from the simple aspect of just plain growing up. It doesn’t matter if you had the best darn childhood on the face of the planet–the reality is that no matter who you are, or where you’re from, or how you grew up, everyone goes through growing pains, changes in body and mind and life and chemistry and psychology, conflicts with family and friends and teachers and mentors, first loves and puppy loves, and just plain standard life experiences that occur from navigating the winding roads of the early learning years in life. Everyone. So you’d think that when creative types sit down at the table to craft a coming-of-age story, they would craft a story that relies strongly on very real, very familar child-like aspects, features, imaginings, stories and fantastical and magical elements that come from real childhood perspectives and experiences.
But, as noted, that often just is not the case, and we get yet another tired, cliched exercise in mediocrity.
Fortunately, though, in just the last six months, we’ve had three definitive classic–yes, classic, not overstating the case here–coming-of-age masterpieces that define just what the films in this genre should be, and they proudly stand with the best of them in this category. They succeed in achieving those goals stated earlier–they capture all the pain and hardship and fantasy and magic (those words will keep re-appearing, intentionally, because fantasy and magic are a big part of a child’s world view) and difficulties of growing up–while also being extraordinarily literary, insightful, intelligence, warm-hearted, eloquent, subtle and understanding. Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse” and Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo,” both from late last year, achieved all of this, and much more, and these continually gifted filmmakers promptly added two gold standards to the genre.
Now, there is a third to add to the list: Wes Anderson’s brilliant, poignant, funny, charming, subtle and warm-hearted “Moonrise Kingdom,” a wonderfully uplifting film that, like “Hugo,” captures the fantastical and magical otherworldly aspects of that great, somewhat mystical time of life–simply, being a 12-year-old (or near that age)–and, like “War Horse,” captures the essence of dealing with some of the darker aspects (but, in “Moonrise,” never too dark) of growing up. When a film successfully mixes these elements–wonder, innocence, life changes, conflicts with authority and authority figures, dark realities, and the uniqueness of a child’s viewpoint–together, adds humor and adventure and the right, accurate insights into how a child might see all of this, deal with all of this, and fight all of this, and originality in other aspects of the film, then you have a successful coming-of-age film. And that is indeed what Anderson presents in “Moonrise Kingdom.”
No one should be surprised that Wes Anderson has achieved this with “Kingdom,” which opened on May 25, 2012, in limited release, but is an excellent film that deserves, and should get, a real Hollywood-style widespread, nationwide release in thousands of theaters. Consistently, like peers Christopher Nolan, Charlie Kaufman and Alexander Payne, Anderson presents a cloistered world-view that is unique and original. See “The Royal Tenenbaums,” “Rushmore,” “Bottle Rocket” and “The Darjeeling Limited.” These films are, continually, original, down the line–in terms of characterizations, stories, dialogue, music, cinematography, settings and even Anderson’s often-inventive use of the camera, celebrating unique, distinct and fluid, overhead and sweeping shots and angles without being overly showy or deliberate.
“Moonrise” is set on New Penzance Island, an inviting, sheltered, hidden-away, beautiful island somewhere off the coast of New England in the summer of 1965–a year that easily provides a perfect analogy for the two main characters’–a 12-year-old boy and a 12-year-old girl who run away– and their coming-of-age journey, as poor 1965 found itself smack in the middle of a shattering barrage of cultural, political, sexual, environmental, artistic and moralistic changes that literally rocked the world. Much like the lead characters, who are two star-crossed, adventurous, rebellious 12-year-olds seeking answers in a confusing, challenging world that seems to be changing day by day for them, 1965 also saw the world swiftly changing from some of the more ridiculously barbaric-like and moronically-conservative false values that hampered previous generations, to a degree, to a more open, evolving, liberating, progressive and future-oriented world. Although these broader, worldly political themes and events of the 1960s are not obviously presented, mentioned or even referred to in the film, to its credit, you can feel their underlying approach–their symbolism–in the rebelliousness of the 12-year-olds at the core of the story, and perhaps, in a coming storm that seems to represent washing away the changes that the characters are underoing and bringing in the changes that the world was undergoing.
In “Moonrise,” a sympathetic, confused and endearingly cute Sam Shakusky (newcomer Jared Gilman, in his first starring film role), 12, a seemingly regular member of the Khaki Scouts, who very much resemble the Boy Scouts, is on a camping trip on the island with his troop when he abruptly decides to run away. As a 12-year-old would, he leaves a nice note explaining that he is running away. But there is another aspect–Sam is running away with equally sympathetic, confused and endearingly cute Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward, another newcomer), 12, who lives in a seemingly normal house with three cute little brothers and her befuddled mom and dad. But mom and dad harbor their own secrets. So while Sam has his own secrets, and Suzy hers, they’re both fed up with the strict constrictions of the adult world, and they simply run away to be together. As much as two 12-year-olds can be, they are in love–they are in 12-year-old love. And Anderson presents this budding love with some of the most simple and subtle, cute and understated, ways as he can–and it is all heartfelt and understanding. Anderson understands that there doesn’t have to be broad comedy strokes all the time–although there is much comedy and the film is funny–and he knows that the darkness in growing up doesn’t have to be horribly, nightmarishly dark–because, you know, it isn’t always horrible, even in real life–and he knows that there is an awkwardness that exists with being 12, in general, and he knows there is a somewhat terrifying awkwardness that exists with early love while you are 12. And all of that bundle of joy and excitement and confusion and love and adventure are presented here–with that fantasy and magic present at every turn.
Sam is rebellious and a bit of an outcast for reasons best discovered in the story (nothing horrible or terribly dark, and that doesn’t give anything away; again, Anderson keeps things light, to his credit here), and that impetus sparks his desire to run away and be on his own. Suzy knows a secret about her parents (again, nothing horrible or nightmarish), and she is dealing with her own rebellious demons, and she wants to run away. But, even more so than those outside problems, they run away because these are two budding pre-teens who simply want to be with each other–the joy that Sam and Suzy display in the most simple moments of just enjoying each others’ company is precious. Anyone, at any age, can relate to the simple affections that two people feel toward each other, and the simple joys found in the expressions of love sent toward one another. Sam and Suzy face rivers, and cliffs and cold water and bullies and authority figures who are searching for them–as well as first kisses and first dances and first embraces–all the while supporting each other, caring for each other, and sticking by each other. Their affection and growing fondness for each other carries the film, and that affection settles neatly into your heart as you watch these two become close to each other. Watching this understated early exploration of youthful love and affection, you walk away from this film with a warm glow in your heart that picks you up.
According to several reports on the making of the film, Anderson told his two young stars to keep it natural, to just act natural. That’s some of the best advice that you can give to kids, who are naturally in the early stages of life with limited life experiences, when they are acting. Gilman is so natural and so at ease, he sometimes stumbles with his words and diction–but guess what? That’s how real kids talk. So it works–and is another endearing quality. Of course, you never want to be too real in a film–you have to be entertaining, too–so Gilman combines his naturalness with a presence that stems from just being a natural, joyful 12-year-old who’s out on a wilderness adventure with the cute girl who he likes! Hayward shows a little more depth to her acting with some intense, introspective facial expressions and some brooding eyes that dig into your soul–quite impressive for a 12-year-old–but she doesn’t show up Gilman. They present a nice, approachable young couple–very similar to the boy and girl lead characters in “Hugo,” as a matter of fact. But no one’s copying anyone, and all remain original–in both films, there just happens to be some good portrayals of youths by real-life youths who happen to be the same ages as their characters, who have presence, and who can act natural.
While Sam and Suzy are off on their adventure and discovering themselves and life, to a degree, the scatterbrained and less-scatterbrained adults on the island go into panic mode and launch an intensive search-and-rescue operation for the kids–twice! You could not have hoped for a more talented and eclectic cast–another Anderson trademark–to portray a collection of mid-’60s adult and authority figures on a remote New England island than the crazy ensemble that Anderson can only be praised for collecting: Bill Murray and Frances McDormand play Suzy’s parents, successful, uptight (to use some lingo from the time period) lawyers going through their own mid-life adventures and discoveries, although on a distinct middle-aged level; Bruce Willis as the island’s lonely lonelyhearts police officer, Captain Sharp–who, it should be noted, is nothing like John McClane or any other of Willis’ loud, sarcastic macho-herioc types; Edward Norton, nearly camouflaged as a by-the-book, but well-meaning and kind Scout Master Ward–and talk about playing against type, this is playing against type; and Tilda Swinson as the requisite villian, a somewhat scary (but never too scary) representation of authority comically known, and referred to, only as Social Services. Together, they all launch an increasingly slapstick-but not broad slapstick–and confused effort to find and rescue Sam and Suzy. Jason Schwartzman, an Anderson regular, the always-reliable Bob Balaban and Harvey Keitel have small supporting roles. A supporting crew of kids in the Scout troops are as subtle and understated as everyone else, and they help maintain that level of understatedness by not going overboard and by not relying on simply being cute.
The notions of being subtle and understated in writing, acting and directing–characteristics that are often incredibly lost in most of today’s loud, clanging, obnoxious and over-stated special affects-blockbusters–is refreshingly welcome. Once again, a director proves that there doesn’t need to be explosions, special effects and endless gunfights and fistfights to tell a warm, poignant story that people can relate to, understand, and embrace.
As the adults and the kids swarm the island looking for Sam and Suzy, a storm of what appears to be an increasingly serious magnitude approaches and subsequently engulfs the island. As noted, that storm could be the approaching life changes that await Sam and Suzy in the coming years. The storm could be those sweeping moralistic, political and cultural changes occurring throughout the country and the world in the 1960s. The storm could be the needed change on the little island off the coast of New England to wash everything clean and lead to better times, even in the aftermath of the storm’s destruction. Or the storm could be the reminder that life is short and precious and sweet, and everyone needs to stop and realize and appreciate what you have–because it could be gone in a second.
It’s not giving anything away to note that you need not fear those unnecessary and depressing dark turn of events that occur in the more morose coming-of-age films. Because sometimes in life, even with all of life’s difficulties, hardships and obstacles, things do work out in the end. Do Sam and Suzy end up together? Do the island residents work out their problems in an adult way that takes care of the kids, helps the kids, and deals with the kids? Do you walk out of a film with a warm glow in your heart if the answers to these questions are “no?” It’s okay to know that Sam and Suzy are okay in the end, and they will see each other tomorrow and the next day. And “Moonrise Kingdom” is the type of positive, uplifting film that makes you think and hope that, one day, Sam and Suzy grow up and get married and have kids of their own–all the while, never losing sight, as a kid or an adult, of that ever-present fantasy and magic that makes life so worth living.
Matt Neufeld is a longtime journalist, actor and film critic in the Washington and Baltimore areas. He has participated in many local film events and projects in the region, and he has appeared as an actor, supporting actor and extra in more than 45 films projects, at all levels, during the past 20 years. He was previously a daily local news reporter and features writer for The Washington Times and The Frederick News-Post, and he was the media relations publicist for The Washington Performing Arts Society. Matt is currently the News Editor for Carroll Publishing in Bethesda.