In Moonrise Kingdom, Sam Shakusky and Suzy Bishop rebel against adults who are trying their best. They assemble their own fantasy in which they will run away from home and live together. Sam is an orphaned boy scout, and Suzy is the oldest child of two unhappily married parents, played by Billy Murray and Frances McDormand.
We don’t meet Sam until minute 16 into the film. Instead we follow his disappearance through the people who notice he’s gone, mainly his scout troop, led by Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton). Police Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) is notified, and the search party begins. Then we finally meet Sam, and we’re briefly introduced to his pen-pal romance with Suzy. Both are considered troubled children with no real friends. The trigger for Suzy leaving home was the discovery of a brochure for dealing with troubled children that her parents possessed. Additionally, she witnesses her mother with Captain Sharp and knows they are having an affair.
So while Sam has no parents, Suzy hates hers. Her father is depressed, and the internal suffering of her parents seems to trickle down into her. Seam, meanwhile, is surrounded by support and structure, but he doesn’t know it. The other kids don’t like him, so he reasons he’s doing everyone a favor by leaving, except Scout Master Ward’s sense of duty makes him want to save Sam from himself. Ward didn’t realize Sam was an orphan, so rather than wanting to aggressively hunt him down, he only wants to help.
The other scouts take joy in hunting down Sam and Suzy, gleefully carrying their improvised weapons. In their first encounter, though, Suzy stabs the ringleader in the back, and the lovebirds escape.
Sam and Suzy’s budding romance is a quirky one. They dance together, talk about being troubled and she reads him stories. In many ways it’s like they’re an older couple, or it can be seen that their fantasies are very childlike in nature. In a more basic sense, they just want to be able to do whatever they want to do. Suzy is more touched by the adults sadness affliction that tends to infect grown ups in Wes Anderson’s movies. Still, she’s trying to push it off by exploring with Sam. In a brief discussion of what they want to do as adults, both say they want to keep moving, not staying in the same place too long. And that’s what they’re doing. While many of the other characters, mostly Mr. Bishop and Captain Sharp (who people call “sad”) seem to struggle with their own place in this small world of theirs, Sam and Suzy are pushing the boundaries, eager to live.
But their escape is short-lived when they are inevitably tracked down on the small island on which they all live. Back at home, Suzy confronts her mother about her affair, and her mother finds the “troubled child” brochure. It’s an illuminating moment into Suzy’s fragile psyche.
Sam is stays with Captain Sharp before he is to be sent off to Child Services, and Sharp begins to empathize more with the boy. Eating dinner one night, they talk about falling in love, and they are like mirror images of each other, albeit years apart in age. They wear the same shaped glasses, though Sam’s are black like his full head of hair while Sharp’s are transparent, looking more like his thin white head of hair. So Sharp sees a lot of himself in the boy.
While all this is going on, the scout troop decides it’s their duty to protect their own, meaning Sam. This is after they speculate on what will happen to him, with some believing they are going to take his brain.
While Mr. Bishop drunkenly chops down a tree and Mrs. Bishop tells Captain Sharp the affair is over, the troop helps Suzy escape. Then they find Sam and do the same. All of them camp out that night and listen to Suzy read one of her books aloud. Then they go to another camp where Sam and Suzy are married, but soon after they are tracked down by another group of scouts.
A large storm hits, and the chase culminates at the top of a church as Sam and Suzy are prepared to leap to their deaths rather than to be taken into custody. Captain Sharp suddenly and dramatically tells Sam that he will adopt him if that’s what he desires. It is.
In the end, Sam and Suzy hang out in her house without speaking. They simply exist with each other. Sam is now dressed in a police uniform, matching Captain Sharp. He paints the scene of a small cove at which they shared their first kiss, with rocks arranged in the sand to spell “moonrise kingdom.”
This entire movie is a kid’s fantasy, and it also feels very nostalgic. As a kid it’s easy to feel like you’re not in control, hence the cliche of a kid running away from home. Sam and Suzy want to run away, and fortunately for them, Sam is an expert wilderness guide so the plan isn’t quite as ludicrous.
Both kids run away because they don’t have any blueprint of what life should be. Outside of the scout camp, Sam lives at a foster home that doesn’t want him back, and Suzy’s parents are completely miserable. There are a lot of miserable people in Anderson’s films, but not all of them have kids. It’s like what Peter said about his wife being pregnant in The Darjeeling Limited: He always anticipated they would get a divorce, so a kid only complicates that.
So the kids rebel, and they’re able to find happiness in that rebellion. In other words, it’s not simply the case that they want something they don’t have and then when they get it, they don’t know what to do with it. They are fully prepared.
Sam provides more of the practical elements of their journey, and Suzy appeals to both kids’ wildest imaginations. She talks about having her own super power (incredible sight with her binoculars), and she reads them stories every night.
There isn’t so much growth within Sam and Suzy in the film, however. They go on this crazy journey and find a way to be close to each other, but they always seem like the same characters, both at the beginning of the story and at the end. Simply by looking at them, they don’t seem that excited to be together. It’s more like something they have to do. They have to be together, because that’s the way love feels like at that age. It’s like a couple magnets. They’re apart, then they’re together. I don’t get the sense that either kid sees the world in a different way at the end of the story.
On the other hand, the adults all experience some internal growth. Mrs. Bishop ends her affair and seems to be a little more hands on with her daughter. She understands that her behavior, and her husband’s, has been affecting Suzy. In a conversation late one night, Mr. Bishop expresses his depression, wondering why they have to go on, and Mrs. Bishop explains that it’s for the kids. Though Mr. Bishop doesn’t seem entirely convinced, it firmly establishes where Mrs. Bishop’s priorities are.
Captain Sharp is a sad man, Mrs. Bishop admits to her daughter, but he’s not dumb, she insists. He does seem to be a lonely guy, but he’s dutiful and there isn’t much else to say about him. When the affair ends, he’s certainly distraught, so seeing Sam’s stubbornness regarding his passion for Suzy reminds him of his own passion for… life? No matter what it is, Captain Sharp sees a flame lit in the dark stormy air, and he wants to protect it, so he adopts the kid.
Lastly, Scout Master Ward is a really cool guy. His character type could easily become the overbearing, power-tripping scout leader, but he genuinely wants the best for his troop. He keeps a rigorous log about the day’s activities, and everything is always in order. Then, when he tells a superior that his entire troop is missing, he gets his badge stripped away. Moments later, though, he heroically saves that same superiors from a burning tent, carrying him on his back as he leaps over the rushing flood water.
In the end he is back to his regular scout’s duties, eagerly and enthusiastically welcoming aboard a new boy scout. He’s like a tour guide, helping children navigate their own imaginations.
So the whole movie feels like a story you might read aloud to a child. It’s a small epic of a childhood romance, and it takes place on this small island that might as well be the whole world. With that island as the entire geographical landscape, it makes it possible to reach the edges of the earth, and that’s what Sam and Suzy do. While this is a small story about their shred journey across a few miles of land, they’ll remember it as a trek to the end of the world and back.