Monday John wanted to go see Moonrise Kingdom. I wasn’t particularly interested in seeing a movie, but figured I could always nap through it if I didn’t like it.
I didn’t get a wink of sleep.
I don’t know how exactly to describe this movie. I suspect it belongs to a genre of movies that I don’t recognize because I haven’t seen the others. I found it whimsical and charming, but with an underlying realism. The cinematography had a stereotyped look, sort of like a Norman Rockwell painting, very much in contrast with, say, the grim visual realism of Snow White and the Huntsman. The first look at the screen let you know that you were about to see a “once upon a time” tale, although the time was 1965. True, those were real trees and boats and cottages and kids running around in “Khaki Scout” uniforms, but they looked too precise and a little unreal, like the kind of illustrations you would find in the books that Suzy, one of the two main characters, steals from her school library.
The characters are stereotyped and improbable as well, especially Tilda Swinton as Social Services (the only name we are ever given for her character) who wears a uniform reminiscent of visiting nurses of the Cherry Ames era and projects a combination of efficiency and rules-first thinking that still manages to hint at some concern for her missing charge.
Her charge, Sam, is a 12 year old Khaki Scout, orphaned and living in a group foster home, who has run away during a camping trip to be with his girlfriend, Suzy. Sam is picked on by his foster siblings and troop mates. Suzy has a reputation for going berserk when things don’t go her way. They meet when Sam blunders into the girl’s dressing room at a performance of Noye’s Fludde, and write to each other for a year before planning to run away together. Their running away is marked by the whimsical unreality of the movie as a whole. Suzy packs her suitcase with her favorite (unreturned) library books and canned food for her cat, and runs off wearing a skirt and Sunday School shoes. They run away on a small island where there is nowhere to go where they can’t be found, as they are rather quickly, only to run away again when Sam’s troop mates decide that they have been unreasonably unkind to him and that they should help him instead. While this is going on, a record storm is brewing.
So at first blush, the movie seems like a cartoon, a comedy for preteens to keep them busy on a summer day.
Yet there is the underlying reality. With all its whimsey, the movie tells the big truth about twelve year olds. They keep secrets. They run away, even if only into the recesses of their minds, where their parents cannot follow. They think about love and sex much earlier than their parents would prefer to acknowledge. They pick on each other for no really good reason and make alliances for no really good reason and have a code of conduct that has nothing to do with the adults around them.
As teenagers we fight to defend our boundaries from our parents and to keep secrets, and then as parents we fight to know what our children are thinking and feeling so we can keep them safe. We become the ones who are whimsical and unreal, thinking we can get inside our children’s heads and protect them from making every bad decision we ever made. Suzy travels with a pair of binoculars so that she can see everything in detail. She likes to think that it is her “secret power”. As a parent I would have given a lot to have that secret power.
So once upon a time there was a real, true story of growing up and away from the people who are desperate to protect us. And all around, a storm is brewing.