As Wes Anderson's take on a coming of age movie, Moonrise seems more heartwarming than his other entries, but not in a mushy way. In an awkward, whimsical, misfit way that is impossibly real, in the end, despite the wackiness that defines it. Chock full of stars, a collection of caricatures combine to create something that feels human.
The movie centers around Suzy and Sam, 12 year old loners who are defined as "troubled," but are in no way odder or more disengaged than the adults around them. Sam is one of the boys at a scout camp run with a strange balance of discipline and carelessness by Scout Master Ward (Ed Norton). When he runs away from the camp, Ward learns that Sam is an orphan whose foster parents calmly wipe their hands of him upon hearing the news of his escape.
We learn that Sam has been in contact with Suzy for the last year. She is one of Walt and Laura Bishop's four children. The eldest and only daughter. The Bishops are a charming and dysfunctional bunch, none of whom talk to each other. Walt and Laura, both attorneys, refer to each other as "Counselor" and discuss their cases from their twin beds at night, in lieu of pillow talk. The young Bishop lads spend their time listening to classical music, while Suzy reads fantasy books and watches the world through binoculars, because they make objects seem close -- even when they aren't far away -- it gives her a sense of having a secret power. Walt drinks and Laura only seems to talk to her family when barking orders through a bull horn. Like the binoculars, Laura uses the bull horn to talk to people who are close to her as well. Maybe its her secret power.
From camp, Sam sends letters to Suzy planning a run away adventure, set to last 10 days. They meet at the appointed time and set off on foot with camping gear, books, a record player (stolen from Suzy's brother) and Suzy's kitten. Once united, they bond with childish intellectualism. They are a serious, practical, and dispassionate duo, but ardent in their quiet dedication and understanding. Though chided for her temper at school, when together neither Sam or Suzy indulge in melodrama, but the unconditional nature of their loyalty, bespeaks the kind of feeling that should be at the foundation for all romances. That's what makes you root for them and evokes compassionate reactions to even things that are silly: like the beatle earrings Sam makes for Suzy, which he then inserts by piercing her lobes with fish hooks or the way he warns her that he might wet the bed at night. He hates to bring it up, but he wanted to tell her beforehand, lest she becomes offended. "Of course, I wouldn't be offended," she says with quick supportiveness that even people who don't wet the bed can only hope to receive from their partner.
Unaware that his foster family has already cast him off, Sam tells Suzy he has hopes for his life with them. He thinks they are building something that isn't what she has with her parents and brothers, but might be very fulfilling nonetheless. The grass is always greener on the other side and Suzy reveals her quixotic fantasies of orphan life. She says she wishes she did not have parents, like him. He answers, "I love you, but you don't know what you're talking about." She responds, "I love you too."
Of course, nothing good can last forever. The camp notices that Sam is missing first. Ward organizes a search party with his troops, but they lack enthusiasm because Sam was the least liked among the boys. No one seems to know why this is. He was an orphan. That seemed reason enough to dislike him originally. Then, once some decided they hated him, others just thought they'd follow suit, as a matter course. More justification than that is seldom necessary. And so, Sam was neatly ostracized by his peers, by his foster parents, by the world. Finding him was more an assignment than an urgency for the scout troop and Scout Master Ward. They only hoped he'd turn up before they had to miss the Hullabaloo that evening.
Ward calls the police and the Captain Sharp(Bruce Willis) begins to canvass the area to look for Sam, stopping at the Bishop house. Outside of her husband's presence, Laura catches up to Sharp, we don't hear their conversation, but she shares his cigarette and holds his hand a little too long, before they part. Later that night when she bull horns Suzy to come to dinner, she finally discovers that her daughter is missing along with Sam. Before she and Walt can call the police, they open the door and find Captain Sharp already parked outside of their house. Walt is more surprised to see Sharp there than Laura is, which is all the reveal that their affair will get.
Sharp, Ward and the Scouts and the Bishop family all head off to find the wayward runaways.
After a rather violent escape from the scouts who find them (Suzy stabs one of them in the back with scissors when he grabs her) Suzy and Sam flee and find an island. It's identified on the map only as a marker point. They agree to name it something else, as soon as they think of something fitting. They cook fish, swim in their underwear, dance and solemnly kiss. Sam has to spit because he had sand in his mouth. She thinks she feels his penis and it seems hard. She assures him that she likes that, then permits Sam to touch her chest and informs him that she believes her breasts will grow eventually. They fall asleep in their tent together, embracing chastely. They awake to the sound of a helicopter and people swarming. Sam zips open the tent to see everyone approaching, the Bishops and their 3 boys, Ward, Captain Sharp. He realizes there is no escape. He zips the tent flap back up and he and Suzy huddle together in their underwear, awaiting the inevitable. Walt snatches the tent, their only cover, up and away. Laura grabs Suzy and drags her away. Captain Sharp takes Sam away.
The Bishops tell Suzy she will never see Sam again. As Laura bathes a sullen Suzy, the girl reveals that she knows what Laura does with the "sad, dumb" policeman. Laura objects that Captain Sharp is not dumb. But he is sad. The movie shows us that they all are: Sharp, Ward, Walt, Laura, in each other, Sam and Suzy have found what has eluded all the adults around them: an answer to loneliness.
Laura tells Sharp that she'll have to stop seeing him. At least for awhile. That evening she tells Walt she's sorry. He wonders what transgression she is apologizing for and she says whichever ones still hurt. He sees that his pain is mostly self-inflicted and she has nothing to be sorry for.
Sharp calls Child Welfare to tell them that Sam has been found. Tilda Swinton is Social Services, literally. She identifies that job as her first and last name. She mechanically tells Sharp that the boy is her responsibility now. She will take him, examine him. See if he needs electric shock therapy (!) and then place him in Juvenile Refuge, because given his history, it would be useless to try to place him in foster care again. Both Sharp and Ward are appalled by Swinton's cold words and, for the first time, neither is going through the motions. It's emotion now.
They had been wearing Scout and police hats, playing roles, supervising the search the way they lived their lives, without much concern or purpose, in a lazy community where nothing much happened and never mattered when it did. But Ms. Social Services presented a future for Sam that had consequences, bad ones. The thought left Sharp unsettled.
Sam spends the night in Captain Sharp's trailer. Sharp cooks for the boy, serves him a beer in his milk cup and philosophizes about love. When Sharp says that he himself was in love once, but the woman didn't return the feeling, we wonder if he is talking about Laura Bishop.
Meanwhile, the scouts have a change of heart too. They decide that they have mistreated Sam. Their metamorphosis does not seem as real as Sharp's. Hours earlier they had all comically taken up weapons in their search for Sam, just in case (or in the hope) that he'd have to be taken by force. They didn't talk to Social Services, don't know that Sam is slated to be sent to Juvenile Refuge and, from what we know of them, wouldn't care. So, it feels like an artificial plot twist when they spontaneously reverse course and decide to help Sam.
That night, they break Suzy out of the Bishop house and then rescue Sam from Sharp's trailer by dropping a rope through the chimney. They then kayak to a nearby island where a camp master, Ben, (Jason Schwartzman, cousin to Moonrise co-writer Roman Coppola and Wes Anderson alumni) who is a cousin of one of the boys, will help them get away. The motley crew march together, a mass of people on the same mission. In a jaunty beret, Suzy reminds one of Patty Hearst with her own Symbionese Liberation Army, only Suzy's wearing knee socks and her Sunday shoes.
For $76, Cousin Ben will help Suzy and Sam, but first he draws blood and "marries" them, as their comrades look on. Husband and wife are on their way to freedom in a small sailboat, when suddenly they have to turn around. Sam must go back because Suzy left her binoculars behind. She can't go on without them. They are her secret power.
A (clearly metaphoric) storm of apocryphal proportions then starts. Stranding Suzy, Sam and all the scouts. Tents fall, bridges collapse, lightning strikes Sam, a river parts and the kids take shelter in a chapel. Soon, the Bishops, Sharp and Ms. Social Services all show up at the church. The kids hide in the choir loft in costumes that disguise them and watch the authority figures fight over them. When Captain Sharp looks up and recognizes them (due to Suzy's binoculars and Sam's familiar coon hat), he keeps it to himself, deciding that he is not going to let the strident Social Services (a dictatorial Tilda Swinton) take Sam.
Realizing that their gig is up, Suzy and Sam run up the church tower and climb outside of it, the rain and lightning whipping around them, as they stand perilously on a ledge. As they prepare to jump on the count of 3 (just as they plunged into the lake on their island) realizing that the fall might kill them, Sam thanks Suzy for marrying him. The kiss they share is electric. Literally. Suzy thinks Sam still has a little lightning in him. Just as they are about to leap, Sharp stops them. On his walkie talkie (which seems to dangerous to use in that rain storm) he negotiates a hasty deal with Ms. Social Services, brokered by the attorneys Bishop. Sam will come and live with Sharp. He won't have to go to Juvenile Refuge. Does he accept this offer? Suzy nods that her husband should. The fugitives give themselves up.
One year later, we see Suzy sitting in her window case, absorbed in a book, with her three brothers listening to classical music on the portable record player, just as they were when the movie starts. The only thing that has changed is that her kitten has now become a cat. When Laura bullhorns the kids to come down to dinner, they scurry and we suddenly see that a fifth child has been sitting in the distance painting. It's Sam. He's dressed in a police uniform now, in place of his scout garb. As Suzy starts downstairs to dinner she and Sam exchange a long look. "I'll see you tomorrow," he whispers earnestly, before descending out of the second story window. It's unclear whether her parents know Sam is there with her, but his guardian certainly does, because Sharp and his police car are down on the street waiting to drive Sam away.
The Bishop playroom is now empty, but the camera pulls back to reveal a canvas that Sam was painting. He has drawn the island that he and Suzy discovered. It seems that they decided on a name for it: Moonrise Kingdom.