The need to belong is common to all people regardless of race, creed, colour or any of the other thousand and one permutations of humanity.
And Wes Anderson, the delightfully idiosyncratic auteur who brought us Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, a keen observer of the human condition and student of the more absurdist behavioural manifestations of this and many other imperatives common to people everywhere, has given it full expression in his new film set in the imagined pre-digital idyll of 1965, Moonrise Kingdom.
He gives voice to our innate need to have a place to call home, one which is not simply a roof over our heads, and food in our bellies, through a cast of diverse and dysfucntional characters on the small fictional island of New Penzance Island, ostensibly located off the New England coast of North America.
Each of these people, though they live on an island wrapped in the perpetual glow of summer, and the bucolic charm of an idealised world, long for something more than what they have, and it fuels the movie’s narrative throughout.
Take the protagonist Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman). An orphan in foster care, he is a member of a curiously over-regimented troop of Khaki Scouts, a fictional counterpoint to the real Scouts, and shunned by all its members who regard him as weird, and socially mal-adept, he leaves camp one night with all the survival gear he can muster to find a place he can live far away from the people with whom he doesn’t feel he has a home.
As news of his escape from society breaks, his foster parents, the Billingsleys (Mr Billingsley is played with brusque efficiency by Larry Pine), who run what looks like a foster camp factory declare they can no longer tolerate his presence in their home, to the consternation of the police chief, Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) who can’t fathom that anyone would deny a young boy a place to call his own.
This raises the curious scenario where even if they find Sam, who let’s face it is running away on a very small island with very finite boundaries, he has no place to return to. Social Services, which is the only name given to the coldly efficient, detached mannerisms of its representative, Tilda Swinton, only has one response – test him for electroshock, which appals Captain Sharp, Sam’s Scout troop and the good people of the island.
Sam though is not entirely alone. He has a kindred spirit in Suzy Bishop, a girl his own age who lives with her parents, Walt (Bill Murray) and Laura (Frances McDormand) and three brothers (one of whom declares her a “traitor to the family” at one point, a description which suits her just fine) in a prim and proper red house perched on the edge of the island.
It is the sort of house you find in all Wes Anderson movies. A little bit Addams Family, a little bit Smithsonian Museum exhibit of the perfect 1960s home, clean and tidy but quirky to its rooftop beams, and crammed with all sorts of artfully arranged household flotsam and jetsam. At first it looks like the idyllic place to grow up but it soon becomes clear that while the home itself is immaculate, the lives of its inhabitants are anything but.
Walt and Laura are trapped in a stultifyingly humdrum marriage where communication has been reduced to updating each other on the status of their cases before the court (both are lawyers, though you never see either leave for work), and interaction with their children, for Laura at least, is usually via shouted instructions through a megaphone. (Although she does share one tender heartfelt moment with her daughter which in the grand tradition of Wes Anderson is neither twee nor forced, and entirely believable given what has just transpired between them.)
It is from this physically warm and cosy but emotionally distant household that Suzy, all heavy blue eye shadow (which stays on even after she goes for a swim), petulance, and sullen stares, escapes with Sam off into the wilderness.
They meet when he is watching, and she is performing in the island’s production of Benjamin Britten’s Noye’s Fludde as a raven (although her unwillingness to buckle to social norms has her humorously busted down to the rank of bluejay, a lesser bird apparently).
(Britten’s music, which includes his Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra features prominently in the movie, and augments the whimsical air that pervades its length.)
Though they do manage to make good their escape, not once, but twice – once Sam’s scout troop learns of his fate they conspire to spring him and Suzy from their respective prisons, and spirit them away to a planned new life away from the island – and establish a sort of idyll in a cove (which is rudely interrupted by their discovery by Captain Sharp, Suzy’s parents and the entire Khaki Scout Troop), they don’t find what they are looking for, which is somewhere they truly fit in.
Eventually fit in they do, after enduring a storm, lightning strikes, and yes getting married, but they are emblamatic of the curse, humorously expressed by Anderson that afflicts all the people in the film, of not really belonging anywhere.
It is an unsatisfactory state of being that affects them, Suzy’s parents, Scout Master Ward who is nothing without his position and his troop, Captain Sharp (who is bereft when Laura temporarily suspends their affair), and it is their quest to remedy it that forms the emotional and philosophical core of this film.
But heavy though that theme may seem, it is handled with aplomb by Wes Anderson in his typical idiosyncratic way that infuses the movie with a jauntily comedic touch and larger-than-life personas and life situations but which are all firmly rooted in a world where real meaningful conversations take place, and people struggle with real, painful dilemmas.
It looks beautiful too. From the quirky 1950s look to the geographical explanations provided by a gnome-like red jacketed Narrator (Bob Balaban), who does a beautiful job of establishing a time and place that is very much 1965 and yet timeless and out of season, to the stark bright yellows of the Billingsleys home (which sits in contrast to the bland emotional paucity of their child rearing philosophy) and the uniformity of the Khaki Scouts uniform and the lushness of the outfits worn by all the performers in Noye’s Fludde, this is a movie to sink into, to immerse yourself in.
It is lush, joyously mad, completely sane, a riot of colour, clever bon mots, and gloriously dysfunctional characters which reminds us that, much like Dorothy discovered all those years ago in Oz, that there is no place like home.
Once you actually find it, that is.