As adults, we’re prone to draw childhood summers in soft pastel. It’s a wonderful, carefree time (we tell ourselves), loaded with fun and friends, laughter and lazy afternoons.
Not for 12-year-old Sam, though. This orphan’s been bounced from home to home, unable to mesh with a foster family, incapable of making friends. His only real long-term attachment is with his Khaki Scouts of North America troop, but even there his fellow scouts hate him. He’s different, this boy—intelligent and high-strung and flat-out weird. Sam’s a splash of neon green in this summertime pastel—garish and goofy and hopelessly out of place.
Suzy, too, is out of place—an angry black mark, scratched and jagged. The same age as Sam, she yells at her teachers, she lashes out at classmates. Her parents keep a copy of “Coping With the Very Troubled Child” on hand, but it doesn’t seem to help. And, given her parents’ obvious detachment, you wonder whether they’ve bothered enough to try.
For Sam and Suzy, childhood is no carefree rollick, no pretty playground. It’s a prison of sorts, to be endured and, if possible, survived.
And then one day they meet—he wearing his Khaki Scout coonskin hat, she dressed as a raven for a Noah’s Ark play. Though they live on opposite ends of New Penzance Island—a small spatter of forest and field off the coast of New England—the two strike up a friendship through the mail (it’s 1965, after all), unloading stories, offering advice and (in a 12-year-old sort of way) falling in something they figure is love.
They decide to run off together—for 10 days or maybe longer—meeting in a grassy field and trekking to the end of the Old Chickchaw Harvest Migration Trail. He carries his Khaki Scout survival gear. She brings her binoculars, cat and a bevy of books. And while they know folks will look for them, they doubt they’ll be truly missed. Because, really, who can they count on but each other?
[Note: Spoilers are contained in the following sections.]
Moonrise Kingdom ends with a storm—appropriate, considering most of the oddballs we meet in this movie have been struggling through stormy lives. These characters don’t always make great or wise or even passable decisions. But many try to come alongside to their fellow storm-whipped travelers and provide what little comfort and shelter they can.
Sam and Suzy are, naturally, the most obvious examples of this. While few outside New Penzance would laud their runaway attempt, inspiration can truly be found in the way they prove their care for each other.
But there are others: When Scout Master Ward discovers that Sam’s flown the coop, he goes to great lengths to recover the boy. And when he discovers Sam’s dire personal story, he desperately tries to comfort him. He rescues someone from a firework-filled tent and saves a bevy of Khaki Scouts from a flood, too.
Captain Sharp also does everything he can to safely bring home Sam and Suzy. And when he learns that Social Services might cart Sam off to some sort of correctional orphanage (replete with shock therapy), he adopts the boy—rescuing him from a church steeple while he’s at it. Suzy’s parents—as distracted as they are by their own issues—love their daughter and act as most parents would in trying to bring her safely home. Even Sam’s old Khaki Scout troop mates regret how mean they’ve been to the guy and do their best to make it up to him.
Sam and Suzy meet in St. Jack’s Church during an elaborate musical production of Noah’s Ark, and the biblical story seems to dovetail with the movie’s narration: When the massive storm hits New Penzance, the characters are faced with sink-or-swim scenarios. And when the storm finally passes, it seems that they’ve been given, in a sense, new hope and a new start. Lots of these people, incidentally, gather in St. Jack’s during the height of the storm.
The books Suzy reads have magical content. A sign found at one of Sam’s past foster homes reads, “Prepare to meet thy God.” We see a priest and two nuns. A shady Khaki Scout leader dons vestments and “marries” Sam and Suzy in what appears to be a camp chapel. (He cautions the children that the wedding is completely nonbinding but may have some personal value to them.)
Puppy love can be pretty confusing when you’re in it—and it seems to be no less confusing when you’re watching it. Sam and Suzy’s “love affair” is part friendship, part infatuation, at turns too mature and yet surprisingly innocent. But no matter how you dissect it, what we see on screen is seriously problematic.
On the beach in their underwear—Sam wearing a coat partly covering his briefs, Suzy in just panties and bra—the two begin slow dancing, then venture a kiss, then experiment with French kissing. Suzy discovers that Sam has an erection while they dance together, and she tells him that he can feel her chest if he wants. He does, holding her breast in his cupped hand as if it was an insect he’d trapped. Suzy tells him that she expects them to grow larger.
The scene is played more for its supposed comedy—two 12-year-olds fumbling with acts too old for them—than its sensuality. But it’s all shown step-by-step onscreen, and the two eventually fall asleep cuddling in the tent. Searchers discover them the next morning, and Suzy’s father is appalled to find his daughter, clad only in underwear, embracing this 12-year-old boy. Khaki troop members later speculate as to whether Sam reached “third base” or not.
We see Suzy in her underwear at other times, too, and at one juncture her mother gives her a bath (knees and shoulders are visible). Sam paints as a hobby—mostly landscapes, but occasionally nudes. Suzy looks at one of his pictures, a naked girl in a pool of water, and asks if that’s supposed to be her. We see Sam in his underwear painting Suzy in hers.
Suzy’s mother is seen from long range, washing her hair without a shirt. (We see her from the side and back.) Turns out she’s been having an ongoing affair with Captain Sharp. And when she learns that Suzy knows about it, she tentatively breaks it off and apologizes to her husband (who also just learned about it).
Sam is struck by lightning—shooting him out of his shoes and blackening his face, but otherwise leaving him unharmed. Suzy stabs a boy in the side with a pair of scissors, producing enough blood to cover the scissors, and the boy’s side and hand. Sam later punches that boy’s wound repeatedly. In flashback, we see Sam punch someone in the crotch and Suzy push a classmate.
Scout Master Ward pulls someone from an exploding tent. Suzy’s father is held back from beating someone up. Scouts brandish knives, machetes and fearsome clubs, anticipating a showdown with the runaways. And to avoid “capture,” the young couple climb to the top of a church steeple and prepare to jump—ready to swim in a water-filled gully below or die in the attempt. The jump is aborted by Captain Sharp, who climbs onto the steeple with them. When lightning strikes and the steeple falls, Sharp (tethered by a rope) holds Sam and Suzy tight, saving them.
Someone shoots a dog with an arrow, killing it. (We see the canine corpse.) Sam gives Suzy earrings made out of beetles and fishhooks, then pierces her ears for her so she can wear them. (A rivulet of blood runs down her neck.)
Two uses of “b‑‑ch,” four of “d‑‑n,” two of “h‑‑‑” and one of “b‑‑tard.” God’s name is misused four or five times; three times it’s linked to “d‑‑n.” Jesus’ name is abused once.
Sam smokes a pipe. Several characters, including Suzy’s mother, Captain Sharp and Scout Master Ward, smoke cigarettes. Suzy’s father both smokes and drinks; we see him hold a bottle of liquor in his hand, preparing to walk outside to find a tree to cut down. Captain Sharp drinks beer, offering some of it to Sam—who empties out his milk glass to make room for it.
Several people aid and abet Sam and Suzy’s second escape—including a handful of Khaki Scouts and someone who appears to be a Scout leader (who’s paid off with a can full of nickels). Captain Sharp lies to Social Services about Sam and later helps Sam sneak into Suzy’s house so they can carry on their now forbidden relationship (which, from what we see, consists of Sam painting quietly while Suzy reads). Sam and Suzy also lie, mislead adults and generally act like they could both use some firm grownup guidance—which is, alas, in short supply here. Suzy tells her mother that she hates her, admitting later she said it just to hurt her.
Sam barges into a girls’ dressing room. He tells Suzy, before spending the night in the tent together, that he might accidentally wet the bed. We see the makeshift plumbing of a camp latrine.
Director Wes Anderson is perhaps one of the 21st century’s most distinctive directors—from his fascination with fashion to his blocky cinematography to his curious love of yellow script fonts. He also explores the same themes again and again: fractured families, forbidden love and hurting characters hoping to heal. As such, his dramedies (Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Darjeeling Limited, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou) often are scented with a sweet-but-desperate melancholy.
Using that as a definition, Moonrise Kingdom is, without mistake, a Wes Anderson film. And if we, strictly for the sake of the exercise, set aside for a moment any and all scenes showing 12 year olds in their underwear, it comes across as a disturbing and problematic fable … with a poignant purpose or two up its sleeve. We know as a society that infatuated tweens running off by themselves is an extraordinarily bad idea. And that knowledge can color everything we see here. If taken as a sort of stylized, impossible fairy tale, we can get closer to accepting at least the premise, if not the content.
But we can’t in reality set those scenes aside for any longer than it took you to read the last paragraph. We don’t live in a world free from an ugly word like pedophilia. We don’t live in a world where kids steadfastly avoid PG-13 movies, or even R movies. And that’s where we get into another—oh so much deeper—layer of problems.
Moonrise Kingdom doesn’t just tell the story of two young runaways: It romanticizes them. It condones their actions. It suggests that puppy love between two 12-year-olds is as worthy and weighty as any noble cause, any sacred quest. And it suggests that adults who’d dare think differently are old stick-in-the-muds who can and should be ignored and circumvented.
With that kind of message in mind, Moonrise Kingdom isn’t so much a sadly sweet fable as it is a parental nightmare—one where barely pubescent children run away together, fumbling with each other’s bodies as any and all adult voices of reason are drowned out by the coming storm.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.