Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Moonrise Kingdom

The kingdom is here, but not here. It's now, but not yet. Those words of my college professor stemmed from George Eldon Ladd's theology of the kingdom of God, describing a present-future kingdom that Jesus inaugurated upon His incarnation, and will bring to completion upon His glorious return. It is a kingdom of hope, a kingdom of peace, a kingdom void of tears or pain or death.

Whether he realized it or not, auteur Wes Anderson has tapped into this kingdom longing in his latest film, Moonrise Kingdom. After years of creating quirky idiosyncratic stories about dysfunctional families and a desire for belonging, this is the most Anderson-y of his films yet, and one of his best. Set in the fictional island community of New Penzance, the film centers around a pair of love-struck 12-year-olds. Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) lives with her three younger brothers and dysfunctional lawyer parents, Walt (Bill Murray) and Laura (Frances McDormand) in an idyllic beachfront property. Young Sam (Jared Gilman) is an orphan living in a crowded foster home. Through a chance encounter at a church play, Sam and Suzy devise a plan to escape their loneliness and step out into a new life together. Upon their disappearance, the community is subsequently turned upside down as various members search for the absconders. From the Khaki Scout troop leader (Edward Norton) to the local law enforcement (Bruce Willis) to the social service worker aptly named Social Services (Tilda Swinton), a myriad of eccentric characters make up this fantastic story.

Moonrise Kingdom is fantastic in the proper sense of that word--at its heart, it is a fantasy film. Whimsical and childlike, it has an overt tone of wonder and innocence. During the opening shot, the camera smoothly glides through the Bishop house like it were a vintage dollhouse, silently scanning rooms with Anderson's keen eye for symmetry. This is a child's world, a world of imagination and naivete. Yet there is also a maturity behind this innocence. Paradoxically, the characters of New Penzance feel both unreal and bizarre while remaining completely authentic and relatable. They are dryly peculiar, but with such sincerity that one never questions their validity. With such a phenomenal ensemble cast, I was most impressed with the newcomer leads, Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman. The kids' performances are dryly mature and compelling, with a hint of humor behind every line. Their romance is both silly and sublime, and perhaps the envy of all the lonely adults that surround them.

This loneliness and isolation is what pervades the community of New Penzance. The Bishops sleep in separate beds, and a late-night conversation between the two of them reveals the despair in their marriage. Captain Sharp sleeps alone on his boat; he is described as a sad man by those around him. Scout Master Ward is chronically inept, finding his only worth in being the leader of this troop of boys, and even failing at that. Every adult appears to be insecure, alone, and longing for community. Suzy and Sam are a stark juxtaposition to all this loneliness; they have each other, and are driven by a sense of purpose and love. When they come to their destination--a tiny beach inlet hidden from the world--they make camp and create a new home of Edenic innocence. They've found what everyone else is looking for: a place to belong. One might call it the kingdom.

When an enormous storm invades the island, the ensuing flood recalls images of the biblical story of Noah. (Sam and Suzy first meet at a church production of the story of Noah). The flood washes away the loneliness as every character must seek refuge in the one place where community may truly be found--the church. As the storm pounds the island around them, reconciliation and hope are finally found in this tiny New England chapel. That's what happens when you seek the kingdom; you can't help but be transformed.

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