Think back to when you were 12 years old, likely the age you were in the sixth grade. It might help to pull out an old photo album or yearbook to see what you looked like then, drawing you back into the memories of your past self. What were your relationships like with your friends, your family? Who were the people most important to you? Were you attracted to anyone romantically? What were your favorite movies, books, music, and clothing? What were you afraid of? What did you dream about or hope for? Who were you?
I’m not surprised by how many people have either completely blocked out this season of life from their memory, or are painfully aware of its embarrassing, often traumatic significance in their personal narrative. Film reflects this unease: the life stage of early adolescence—typically about ages 11-14—is rarely the central focus of many cinematic stories. We have “children’s movies” and “teen films,” but there is not a true genre designated for this awkward liminal stage (nor would most people want one). Yet these may be the years that define us as human beings more than any other season of life. The tumultuous and earnest experiences at the onset of adolescence—what seminal adolescent psychologist G. Stanley Hall labeled as “storm and stress”—provide the foundation for our entire adult identities, a foundation upon which we either build for the rest of our lives, or, by necessity, have to deconstruct and reshape in some belated crisis.
Yet defining the entrance and exit from adolescence is complex, as this is essentially the end of our childhood. Biologically, this transition begins with puberty, most clearly measured by menarche in girls. Psychologically, it begins with the advent of formal operations, or the ability to practice abstract thought, literally thinking about thinking. Socially, some faiths and cultures ceremonially celebrate one’s coming of age (quinceañera, bar and bat mitzvah, etc.). Even with these rites of passage, our notions of “child,” “adolescent,” and “adult” are contextually determined and often ambiguous. Categories frequently blur into one another, and it is difficult to discern whether adolescents should be considered “big kids” or “little adults.” A person viewed as a “child” in a certain historical era or context may be a “youth” in another, or an “adult” in third. A 12-year-old girl may be physically capable of having a baby, but still needs to sleep with a doll or stuffed animal for comfort at night. A 12-year-old boy may be able to pitch a perfect campsite and navigate wilderness terrain with adult-like confidence, yet still could wet the bed in his sleep. This lack of clear boundaries for determining when childhood ends and adulthood begins inevitably creates a sense of anxiety for young people—they feel the pressure and desire to grow up, but often the adults around them are of little help in navigating the transition.
Upon leaving childhood, the primary task of adolescence is identity formation, determined by two questions: 1) Where do I belong? and, 2) How am I unique? These are questions of affinity and autonomy, respectively, a search for authentic community even as we grow in self-differentiation. We try to fit in, even as we try to distinguish ourselves. Uniting these divergent tasks is the big question of identity: Who am I? It’s a question we continue to answer throughout our adult lives, but it typically begins at the chaotic onset of puberty, this stage between being a child and an adult. Yet childhood isn’t quite over; it’s more of a slow fade than an abrupt leap. Even with clearly demarcated rites of passage, the end of childhood isn’t very obvious when we’re in the middle of it.
Perhaps no other film in recent cinematic history captures the storm and stress of emerging from childhood better than Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom. A metamodern coming-of-age fairy tale in the vein of George MacDonald or Lewis Carroll, the film captures the threefold task of affinity/autonomy/identity in both form and content. As David Bordwell observes, within Moonrise Kingdom “childhood is everywhere.”
“What kind of bird are you?” Sam Shakusky asks Suzy Bishop (Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward). It’s more than an inquiry about avian identification—Sam looks Suzy directly in the eye, the camera serving as her point of view, and asks her about her sense of self, the kind of person she believes herself to be. It’s their initial encounter, that magical connection which happens when two people fall in love with each another. So it’s interesting that the beginning of their romantic journey commences with the question of autonomy—what makes you unique from all these other “birds” around here?
Sam recognizes that Suzy is different. We, too, recognize this difference as the film begins. The princess of this fairy tale is isolated in the lighthouse tower of her home at Summer’s End, scanning the horizon with her binoculars for her rescuer. When Sam later asks why she uses the binoculars, she confesses, “It helps me see things closer. Even if they’re not very far away. I pretend it’s my magic power.” Wes Anderson uses her magical POV as an ongoing narrative device, one which both emphasizes the distance Suzy feels from the world around her while also serving as a form of narrative revelation. In the opening sequence, we see Suzy in the center of the frame looking directly into the camera, peering through her binoculars into the distance; it’s only later that we discover she is awaiting Sam’s arrival in the meadow to make their escape. The binoculars serve as a totem on Suzy’s journey towards autonomy and self-differentiation. Through the binoculars, we see what Suzy sees, and what she sees is from a unique perspective from everyone else around her. She prefers the binoculars to a mirror, watching others rather than looking into herself. When Sam inquires about a cut on her hand, Suzy tells him, “I got hit in the mirror. I lost my temper at myself.” It’s a visceral image of self-awareness and self-loathing, the angst in recognizing childhood innocence being lost even while not fully being an adult. Suzy is different, and she knows it—she just wants to be her vulnerable, different self with someone else.
Sam is also different. While he has the skills and talents of a Khaki Scout, he just doesn’t fit in with the rest of the boys in Troop 55 for reasons never fully explained. Sam asks the bully, Redford (Lucas Hedges), “Why didn’t you like me?” Redford responds with smug indifference: “Why should I? Nobody does.” The exit from childhood into adolescence can foster an inexplicable cruelty, with peers belittling peers even as they all long to find acceptance. Sam is a bit odd and tends to over-explain things, but none of this merits the outright rejection he continually experiences. Perhaps Sam’s inability to find belonging is the lingering trauma of being an orphan—death swallowed up his family, the context where we all (ideally) first experience a sense of affinity and closeness. Having faced the demise of those who brought him into existence, Sam has to grow up sooner than those around him. Despite still being a child—and he is far more childish than Suzy in his imaginative posturing and physical development—he nevertheless has experienced adult-level tragedy, perhaps exacerbating the distance he feels.
In a conversation about their families and mutual desire for affinity, Suzy tells Sam, “I always wished I was an orphan. Most of my favorite characters are. I think your lives are more special.” She views this as Sam’s identifying mark of autonomy—he has a special place in this world, something distinctive and valuable. Sam looks at Suzy with hesitant incredulity, unsure of what he’s just heard, but also knowing that he needs to respond: “I love you, but you don’t know what you’re talking about.” Perhaps no other statement summarizes the affinity/autonomy paradox like Sam’s reaction. He is madly in love with Suzy, willing to abandon the rest of the world simply to be with her alone. But he is also a unique individual with feelings and desires. He sets a healthy boundary by differentiating himself between Suzy’s idealized fictional orphans and his real-life experiences, holding Suzy accountable for her statement. Whether Sam recognizes it or not, this vulnerable and profound reply to Suzy is a significant leap in the journey of maturation, both as an individual and as a couple. And it’s an attractive quality. Taken aback, but clearly moved, Suzy can only say, “I love you, too.”
In the montage of their epistolary correspondence planning their getaway, we catch glimpses of their struggle finding belonging in their respective contexts, a struggle which usually erupts in violence. Whether Sam is lighting something on fire while sleepwalking or Suzy is bawling out her family or classmates in a fit of rage, their misfit qualities are both comical and tragic. Misunderstood by everyone else around them, Suzy and Sam have found a sense of affinity with one another, a unifying bond based on being different. This affinity ultimately leads to a marriage, a critical moment late in the film where Sam and Suzy are reunited after a brief separation. Having escaped with the help of Troop 55—a moment of reconciliation where the Khaki scouts’ own desires for affinity and recognition of Sam’s autonomy is noteworthy—the two ask to be wedded by Cousin Ben, the jack-of-all-trades civil law scrivener and manager of the scout camp tuck shop. While the wedding ceremony wouldn’t hold water in the eyes of adult institutions, Ben notes the “moral weight” of the marital covenant, and exhorts the couple to really think through their decision. After spitting out their chewing gum, the couple has an inaudible conversation directly next to a boy jumping on a trampoline. Anderson’s framing technique is pronounced here, and the fact that we as the audience are not made privy to their discussion is significant—this is a private conversation between two adults, much like parents choose to discuss mature-themed subjects out of earshot of their children. The couple’s journey towards adulthood steadily progresses, culminating in the wedding ceremony itself, followed by the slow-motion shot of Sam and Suzy emerging from the chapel as husband and wife, a singular scene within the entire scope of Moonrise Kingdom. Anderson doesn’t want us to miss this moment: Sam and Suzy, while still children in the eyes of the adults around them, have crossed a threshold into the yet-unknown territory of adulthood.
The stories of childhood and coming of age are typically told not by kids themselves, but by adults. Making observations and recalling their personal experiences, the adult—in this case, the filmmakers—project their image of childhood onto the screen through child actors who serve as representatives of Children Everywhere. Adults are the gatekeepers to growing up, forcing children and adolescents to conform to the institutions, traditions, and expectations of the various roles and norms agreed upon by Adults Everywhere about what Children Everywhere should act like. This is not a new phenomenon; throughout history and in a wide variety of contexts, adults have guarded the doors into maturity with a tacit authoritarian approach. Biological puberty may happen mysteriously and spontaneously, but social puberty remains an adult-determined phenomenon.
Two telephone conversation scenes embody this aloof adult authoritarianism in Moonrise Kingdom. When Captain Sharp and Scoutmaster Ward call Sam’s foster parents to inform them that Sam has “flown the coop,” the foster father responds that they don’t want to take Sam back into their home, that he doesn’t belong there any more. The shock and sadness of this phone conversation is compounded by Sam’s admission to Suzy that he feels like this foster home is beginning to feel like a real family, unaware that he’s already been ousted. Already struggling to find belonging, the one place that should welcome him expels him with a pithy letter and a trite phone call.
In the second conversation, this time with Social Services, there’s now a pattern—the adults will determine Sam’s outcome and destiny, regardless of his feelings or the facts at hand. Social Services suggests shock therapy for Sam due to the violent incident with scissors, which Sharp and Ward fiercely dispute: “That was the girl!” Social Services curtly replies, “Well maybe she needs help too, but that’s not our job.” Yet it is precisely their jobs and responsibility to care for and nurture the young—as a police officer, a scoutmaster, and a social worker, these adults represent institutions meant to serve and protect children, just as it is the foster parents’ job to care for the orphans in their midst. There’s a reluctance to fulfill their responsibility as adults; they’re forced to play their part in this theatrical performance of social obligation, all while recognizing their inability as adults to do so. Each phone scene ends with a lingering pause on the split-screen, the post-call sighs and looks of resignation on each adult’s face. Even as Sam seeks autonomy, the adults (apart from Captain Sharp, who ultimately takes Sam under his wing) reject his attempted forays into adulthood, yet can offer no compelling alternative destination or advice. Perhaps it’s why Sam and Suzy created their own kingdom, a place where they can finally rule their own lives in freedom and peace.
If there was to be a filmmaker who could bring the authentic experience of childhood to the screen with its fraught sense of wonder and whimsy, it’s Wes Anderson. In his filmic universe, children often appear mature and grown-up, while the adults are mostly puerile or juvenile. Parental figures are absent, either due to death or indifference, and the children must navigate their identity formation on their own. It’s not difficult to imagine Suzy growing up into Margot Tenenbaum, or Sam finding a kindred spirit in Max Fischer (albeit their bounteous mansplaining would likely drive each other to madness). Even though Anderson is an adult, there is a boyish quality to his aesthetic, an approach that is childlike without being childish. This childlike quality is especially pronounced in Moonrise Kingdom from the opening moments as the camera explores the Bishop’s home at Summer’s End like it was a living dollhouse. The fictional island of New Penzance is a make-believe utopia, a fantasy Never-Land set in 1965 off the New England coast, a place where time stands still and dreams can come true. The Super 16 film and autumn color palette add to this fantastical quality, creating an ethos of eternality even while remaining rooted in the world Anderson has crafted.
“Crafted” is an apt term for Anderson’s approach. Like a boy playing in the sandbox with toy figures, Anderson constructs whole worlds within which he and his camera plays. There’s a near-pageant quality, akin to the play of “Noye’s Fludde” which serves as a key plot point framing the narrative. Costumes and music emphasize the playfully produced quality of Moonrise Kingdom. In a Cannes press conference, Anderson elaborated on the importance of the play into the film’s narrative, as well as the significant incorporation of Benjamin Britten’s music, quoted in the New Yorker:
The Britten music had a huge effect on the whole movie, I think. The movie’s sort of set to it. The play of “Noye’s Fludde” that is performed in it—my older brother and I were actually in a production of that when I was ten or eleven, and that music is something I’ve always remembered, and made a very strong impression on me. It is the color of the movie in a way.
Is Moonrise Kingdom Anderson’s cinematic reimagining of his own childhood? The opening and closing shots reveal the childlike artifice of the entire filmic construct, with artwork serving as the bookends to the film’s narrative. In the opening shot, we see a needlepoint portrait of Summer’s End hangs on the wall of the Bishop home before the camera pans through Anderson’s dollhouse environment. The penultimate shot is Sam’s painting of Mile 3.25 Inlet, an image of the titular Edenic paradise. The final scene is a glimpse of that imagined kingdom, the words “Moonrise Kingdom” spelled out on the beach in pebbles. It’s ambiguous as to whether this concluding image is perhaps a memory or a mirage, whether Sam and Suzy really laid out those rocks on the beach or simply created this kingdom in their minds and hearts. Perhaps it’s all a fantasy, a childlike dream, but this doesn’t mean it isn’t real. Our fantasies as early adolescents are the stretching of our newly discovered abstract thinking muscles, the ability to imagine new possibilities and reach out into the unknown future, as well as enact concrete decisions to make those dreams come true. Sam and Suzy’s entire journey is one of fantasy and myth-making, acting upon their desires with confidence despite recognizing the likely futility of their choices.
All of Anderson’s films, especially Moonrise Kingdom, express these youthful fantasies with an uninhibited sincerity and wonder. He is an adult with a child’s imagination, and utilizes his capacity as the former to perfectly express the latter. Anderson’s characters resist the hegemonic cultural narrative that one has to “grow up” into a rational, responsible adult. As we grow up, we are forced to abandon imagination and curiosity for logic and reason, leaving the spontaneous adventures of the outdoors for the consistent responsibility of the workplace. We see this narrative played out to its end in Suzy’s parents, their bitterness and cynicism about life a stark contrast to the naïve idealism of the 12-year-old couple. Sam and Suzy refuse to allow such a narrative to determine their futures. “So, what do you want to be when you grow up?” Sam asks. Suzy replies, “I don’t know. I want to go on adventures and things. Not get stuck in one place. What about you?” “Go on adventures, too. Not get stuck, too. Anyway, we can’t predict the exact future,” Sam thoughtfully offers before warning Suzy that he may wet the bed. It’s a moment of profound vulnerability as well as subversion. These young people see the stuckness of the adults around them, recognizing the ineptitude in romance and vocation, and they resist. They choose an alternative narrative, one which upends convention and is built upon uncertainty. Yet they do this together, autonomy and affinity in harmony, like the unique sounds of an orchestral arrangement in the tradition of Benjamin Britten coming together in unified melodic rapture.
I think our 12-year-old selves live on inside every adult. We are all still the same awkward, frightened, confused individual we once were at the beginning of puberty. Our adult lives embody the title of the book Suzy is reading aloud at the exact halfway point of Moonrise Kingdom: “Disappearance of the 6th Grade.” Becoming an adult is simply learning how to manage and cope with one’s fears and emotions in our identity formation, to put on the appearance of having everything together. Yet vulnerability and imagination are two childlike virtues worth maintaining as we grow—indeed, they’re essential for true emotional maturation. Maturity is the willingness to step into the adult places of responsibility with a keen self-awareness despite feeling in over our heads, facing our fears with hopeful anticipation because we know ourselves even as we are known.
It’s significant that in the final scenes, Sam and Suzy throw their animal masks off the precipice of the church steeple as they face imminent death together, their faces framed in close up, uncovered in a moment of genuine transparency. They kiss, electricity shooting between them. “I think you’ve still got lightning in you,” Suzy observes. Even as the storm and stress of adolescence is upon them, they stand fearless together, willing to face the flood in passionate solidarity. In that moment, they are neither children nor adults—they are simply human beings, fellow adventurers seeking an Edenic reality, a place where they can wholly belong.
Don Stecher says
Well done, Joel….excellent insights on one of my favorite directors’ finest movies.
I’ll send some other thoughts in an email.