Sexualising children, Wes Anderson style — or why Moonrise Kingdom is weird for the wrong reasons
There is something more than a mite odd about writer/director Wes Anderson’s latest production, Moonrise Kingdom, the smugly aloof and visually beautiful flick that kicked off this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and almost certainly not for reasons the celebrated king of cinematic quirk intended.
“It feels hard.”
“Do you mind?”
“I like it.”
That’s an exchange between two young lovers at the centre of Moonrise Kingdom and no, they’re not discussing the texture of carpet. Just how young are they? Come on down for the Larry Emdur moment. Are they in their 30s? Lower. In their 20s? Lower. Are they 16? Lower. 15? Lower? 14? Lower. Are they thirteen years old?
If you guessed the male lead, Sam, was 12-years-old and the actor who plays him, Jared Gilman, was the same age, you’ve probably seen the film or the trailer or looked at the pic at the top of his blog post, and yes — you’d be right.
His girlfriend Suzy is the same age. The actor who plays her, Kara Hayward, is actually younger than Gilman, but has sad adult-like eyes, the weary gaze of a self-hating hand-down-your-mouth late 20s model on a diet of rabbit food and water. But there’s no question the rest of her looks, well, very young.
In the scene quoted above Suzy is wearing only underwear and Sam has no pants on. The couple are on a beach French kissing, a moment that plays like a weird pre-pubescent take on Love Story, but with groping and awkward conversation.
After Sam fondles Suzy’s chest, Suzy dryly notes that her breasts have some growing to do. The same can be said about Wes Anderson, a talented filmmaker (particularly aesthetically) whose stories find themselves ensconced in childish vacuousness. The most obvious example is 2004′s giddily meaningless The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.
So here we have it: a “romantic” comedy about two minors who run off into the woods and sleep with each other while a search party bumbles about trying to find them. A love story between people way too young to understand what that word means. A rom-com with a romantic male lead almost ten years under the legal age for drinking alcohol in the US, but that doesn’t prevent Anderson from shoehorning in a moment depicting Sam sharing a beer with, of all people, Bruce Willis.
I Want to Know What Love Is would have made a fitting choice for the soundtrack, though Anderson’s left-of-centre oeuvre steers well clear of the slop bucket of mainstream pub rock. He’s more Belle and Sebastion than Bon Jovi. Like, a lot more.
The oddest thing about Moonrise Kingdom is not its intentional strangeness (offbeat compositions, downbeat characters, random quirky shots of sweet nothings, etcetera) but the manner with which it sexualises minors, gets them cavorting in the woods and talking about boners while the film around them lathers itself in youthful whimsy, a sort of Bill Henson, Roald Dahl co-production.
It didn’t sit right with me, but how come? I’m no prude. No shrill panic merchant. No moral alarm bell ringer. So why did I find the “romance” in Moonrise Kingdom a little off?
In short, it’s Anderson’s lack of characterisation coupled with his immaturity as a storyteller; his affection for flights of fancy over interesting drama and the inability to distinguish them (the one exception is his best film, 2001′s The Royal Tenenbaums, which coupled comedy with subjects as dark as suicide).
There’s nothing wrong with kiddie pool deep escapism, nothing at all, but when Anderson mixes in erections and groping, long leggy shots of prepubescents and an attempt to create serious romance, the sand pit becomes weirdly soiled.
In Anderson’s universe young and old characters operate on the same plain of existence, with broadly the same level of maturity and intellectual cognisance. Young people are often adult-like (the prodigy characters in Fantastic Mr Fox and Rushmore, for example) and the adults often childish (Bill Murray’s prankster character in Rushmore comes to mind, and so do the antics of Luke and Owen Wilson in his first feature, 1996′s Bottle Rocket).
More to the point, age doesn’t seem to exist in Anderson’s films. The kids in Moonrise Kingdom speak with the same deadpan smugness as the adults and vice versa; it’s the Aaron Sorkin single voice syndrome — hullo, Newsroom – in which one character is essentially divided into a dozen, and each reflect the creator rather than their creations, a sort of Frankstein’s monster compiled from bit parts of the writer or writers’ ego.
Here Anderson has it both ways, making a film about the freedom and constraints of childhood featuring kids who speak and behave the same way the adults do, and that’s a whirlwind that never makes sense. He’s a Never Never Land fantasist, a maker of worlds where nobody really grows up, or the tipping point of their character arcs are only cursorily considered, to the point at which they don’t really matter.
The sexualisation of minors requires thought and skill that has very little — probably nothing — to do with constructing lovely to look at dioramas or shots of blithe, textural scenery. It’s about creating characters, emotions and personalities.