When I was a teenager, I remember thinking that no book or movie got anywhere near what it’s like to go through puberty. It seemed to be an era in life that literature forgot, or simply glazed over. The books I read in English class placed kids in zoomed out parables that had nothing to do with the sexually-obsessed, Axe-abusing kids I knew of, while The Disney Channel tends to focus on quirk rather than conflict. Even Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret doesn’t capture the mix of shame, alienation and curiosity that come with hitting that right of passage. While Wes Anderson’s new movie, Moonrise Kingdom, doesn’t deal with every aspect of puberty, it approaches the subject with an unapologetic darkness and attention to detail that captures the place between childhood and teenage-hood in a beautiful way.
Moonrise Kingdom is the story of two kids whose reputations for being “emotionally disturbed” render them outcasts in their quaint island town. Sam is unpopular in his Khaki Scout troop because kids believe his orphaned childhood made him impulsive and violent. Suzy is a miniature Margot Tenenbaum who spies her mother having an affair with her binoculars, which she uses to pretend that super-sight is her super-power. (She also looks like a cross between Lana del Rey and Hermione Granger dreamed up but Humbert Humbert himself.)
As the two meet in a meadow on their way to run away from home, the first thing you notice is that they both bear symbols of adulthood that we don’t usually see on pre-teens in media. She is wearing thick blue eyeshadow, and he is smoking a pipe. These strange moments happen often in the movie, as the boy scouts run around with mallets covered in bent nails, rifles and sets of bow and arrows, and nobody blinks an eye. As the film is set in the 60’s, it makes you think about the precious way that we have evolved to talk about not just pubescent kids, but the super-parenting that is supposed to eliminate this mischievous instinct. But the reality is, kids really do get in fights in school, and many of their parents do drink and smoke in front of them, dealing with their own problems.
The most striking thing about this film is how these adult moments are juxtaposed with reminders that the characters are, in many ways, still children, who cling to their usual comforts. In one scene, the kids feel each other up and talk about his boner, and then she reads him to sleep. In another, he warns her that he might wet the bed, and she reassures him that she’d never take it personally.
The plot doesn’t attempt to prove that Sam and Suzy aren’t emotionally disturbed in the traditional sense, but rather questions how we deal with these warning signs in children. The scenes where they do inflict violence on their peers are treated with humor – one of the most campy scenes involves a child-to-child stabbing. The film doesn’t shy away from this darkness, but instead glorifies the adults who will do whatever it takes to make sure these problems never land a misunderstood kid in shock therapy.
In one scene, the kids sit over a dying dog and Suzy asks Sam if he was a good dog. Keeping with the film’s refusal to sugar coat life, sex and tragedy, he simply answers, “Who can say?”
If I had grown up with this movie, the years between 10 and 14 would have been just a little better.