Moonrise Kingdom

moonrise kingdom 2A long, long time ago, I was forced [by an earnest sociology professor] to read an article called The Gifted Can’t Weigh that Giraffe.

If I remember correctly, the idea behind this article was that (to borrow a metaphor from another landmark educational study) the redbirds were better than the bluebirds at coming up with solutions to zany problems because the redbirds hadn’t been taught the rigid academic methodology of bluebird ways. In other words, the “regular” kids could still think outside the box in ways that their “brighter” counterparts could not.

Every time I read a Wes Anderson script I’m reminded, for reasons which are never more than half clear to me, of the fact that the gifted just can’t weigh that giraffe.

1. Is the dialogue (a) free of exposition and (b) rich in subtext? This will include (c) unique voices for each character. (each part worth 10 points)

Part A) Yes, the authors inject us into their story and let us get our bearings from the context clues. You can see how effective they were at this by looking at how they reveal one of the most important pieces of information in the script—the fact that Sam is an orphan. From page 11:

Am I speaking to Sam’s father?

Mr. Billingsley frowns. He says, surprised:

No, sir. Sam’s parents passed away a
number of years ago. We’re Mr. and Mrs.
Billingsley. We’re foster parents. Sam’s
been with us since last June.
Mrs. Billingsley has stopped icing her cake. She watches Mr.
Billingsley. Scout Master Ward interjects:

Excuse me, sir. This is Scout Master Ward
speaking. Are you implying Sam’s an

Well, it’s a known fact. Of course, he

Not only have the authors given us a healthy dose of exposition elixir by mixing what we need to know with light comedy, they have also designed their story in such a way that the main characters are as much in the dark as we are. This, then, isn’t exposition for the sake of the audience; it’s exposition for the sake of the story, and that makes all the difference in how it comes across to the audience.

The authors have done their job so well, in this instance, that it will even border on heartrending later when we hear Sam say on page 54:

Are your foster parents still mad at you?
For getting in trouble so much.

I don’t think so. We’re getting to know
each other better. I feel like I’m in a
family now. Not like yours, but similar
to one.

He has no idea that his foster parents have already turned their backs on him.

10 out of 10 points.

Part B) Nearly everything Scout Master Ward says is filled with the subtext that he wants to be the “alpha male hero from an Epic Poem” type of guy. I’m hard pressed to think of a more obvious case of a Beowulf searching for his Grendl.

I’ll quote one example from page 13:

You have your orders. Use the
orienteering and path-finding skills
you’ve been practicing all summer. Let’s
find our man and bring him safely back to
camp. Remember: this isn’t just a search
party, it’s a chance to do some firstclass
scouting. Any questions?

Lazy-Eye raises his hand. Scout Master Ward points to him.


What’s your real job, sir?

(caught off-guard)
I’m a math teacher.

What grade?

Eighth. Why?

Lazy-Eye shrugs. Scout Master Ward frowns.

You know, we’re, actually, kind of, in
the middle of something, if you didn’t
notice. This is a crisis. Anybody else?

Of course, the real subtext is in the characters of Sam and Suzy. We are meant to view these two as having this surreally perfect transitory childhood love that takes itself too seriously and fails, utterly, at emulating real love.

The truth is these two kids are engaging in one of the more endearing love stories ever told. If these two can’t make it forever, nobody can.

10 out of 10 points.

Part C) The character individuation is superb. I’ll use an exchange from page 58 to illustrate:

I wish I knew what makes you tick.

I beg your pardon?

Please, terminate this conversation.

(to Lionel)
She’s saying that to me?

Suzy and her mother each have one line and Suzy’s father gets two. Not much to go on, and yet we know just from these four lines exactly how damaged this family relationship is.

10 out of 10 points.

2. Do the first 10 pages make me want to read to Fade Out? (20 points)

Other than the first two pages, I thought these first 10 were pretty ingenious. In fact, pages 3-10 contain one of the best large-cast-introductions I’ve ever read.

I love the way page 3 begins with Scout Master Ward and then introduces us to his troop one at a time in more and more unique ways until we get to this on page 6:

Who’s missing?

It turns out Sam is the one who is missing. We find out on the bottom of page 7 that he isn’t just missing:

Jiminy Cricket. He flew the coop.

That is a truly fantastic (5 full pages long) character introduction.

From there we meet Captain Sharp and track down Sam’s foster father who tells us (on page 10):

Yes, sir. I received your message. Thank
you very much. In fact, we’ve come to a
decision, as a family, because this is
only the most recent incident involving
Sam’s troubles, and it’s just not fair to
the others, so, unfortunately — we can’t
invite him back, at this time.

All of that was excellent and I was all in for the read just because of this scene.

However, the first two pages are a bit of an anchor. They’re not horrible and we do need to meet Suzy, but her introduction is so dreary and rainy that it hardly seems fair. It is not enough for us to see her on page 2 as…

She raises a pair of junior binoculars to her eyes.

I mean, yes, those binoculars will be very important later, but it seems to me to be logically necessary that I can’t now be interested by things that only have power to interest me later.

15 out of 20 points.

3. Does the structure of the story have (a) a suitable number of reveals (b) an engine that fits its protagonist and (c) a thematic underpinning which, by Fade Out, explains why THIS engine and THIS protagonist were the subject of THIS story. (eacheach part worth 10 points)

Part A) We get enough reveals to get us to the finish line but this is another script which isn’t succeeding on the basis of its plot.

At first we wonder if the whole script isn’t going to be Sam and Suzy running from the Khaki Scouts and Captain Sharp. Just when we settle into the idea that this is what our narrative will be, we’re interrupted by the melee that results in the stabbing of Redford by Suzy– followed by the overnight camping at Mile 3.25 Tidal Inlet.

Remarkably, Suzy gives us the blatantly metafictive verbal cue, on page 55, that this part of the story has ended. She says:

Part Two.

The second part of the story involves the young lovers rescue by the other boys of the Khaki Scouts and the arrival of some serious weather. (So serious is this weather, that one of the characters ends up getting struck by lightning.)

Again, this wasn’t a story thick with plot points, but it didn’t feel barren in places either.

10 out of 10 points.

Part B) It seems that you might be able to make the argument that this script has a dual protagonist, Sam and Suzy. You might even go as far as to argue that their relationship is the protagonist. An especially ornery individual out there might dare to conclude that Suzy, alone, is the protagonist. (After all, we open with her.) I, however, want to be as conservative as possible for once, and just go with the idea that Sam is the protagonist.

If Sam is the protagonist, then the engine of this story is his quest for love.

It is hard to imagine a better character to go on such a quest than a boy whose parents were killed in a traffic accident.

10 out of 10 points.

Part C) For me, this script was very close to being thematically perfect. I consider a script to be thematically perfect when each character in the story is transfigured by some variation of the story’s central theme.

Here is a list of the characters who are damaged at the beginning of the story who also end up healed by the events of the story:



Scout Master Ward

Captain Sharp

Mr. and Mrs. Bishop

Each of these people is on a quest to find love, just like Sam. This thematic reflection is exactly what we would expect from a great screenplay—the problems of the lesser characters should reflect the problem of the main character. There is a reason, in other words, that this specific batch of people is being written about.

Let’s look at the specific batch we’re given in Moonrise Kingdom one at a time:


wants to be loved by her parents in spite of her “outbursts”. The fact that she finds unconditional acceptance from Sam is just bonus. In a very real way, Sam teaches Suzy’s parents how to love her. Look at how he reacts during their marriage scene from page 79:

Cousin Ben counting nickels in the tennis ball can. He jerks
his thumb toward Sam and Suzy and says dismissively:

I guess they’re probably just trying to
pretend they’re struggling over their
decision, but at least –


Cousin Ben looks. Suzy has her hands around Sam’s throat and
is throttling him. Sam squirms loose and calms her down. The
troop watches transfixed. Sam takes a snapshot out of his
pocket and shows it to Suzy, explaining. Suzy nods. They come
back over to the group. There are tears on Suzy’s cheeks. She
says to Cousin Ben:

We’re sure.

What is being modeled here, is a way to love Suzy for what she is, not what someone else wants her to be.

Scout Master Ward

spends the whole script wanting to be Commander Pierce, or, the idealized version of Commander Pierce that he internalizes from his Scouting magazines. The reverence that Scout Master Ward has for this fictionalized version of Commander Pierce is a kind of love. He definitely spends the whole script chasing it. And when the bad weather hits, it is Scout Master Ward who ends up earning the reverence of the whole island of Penzance.

Mr. and Mrs. Bishop

resuscitate their broken marriage out of worry about their broken daughter.

Captain Sharp

heals when he decides that he’s not going to let Sam become a ward of the state again. He will act as Sam’s guardian and save Sam from the revolving door of inattentive foster homes.

So, what is the theme of this script? What does Sam teach all the characters in his story by subjecting them to his own personal quest for love:

In order to get love, you have to give love.

I believe the story does an admirable job of developing this theme. I am, however, somewhat disappointed that it allows the central relationship (between Sam and Captain Sharp) to resolve itself in ethical rather than emotional terms. From page 95:

Nobody’s going anywhere.

Everyone stops. Captain Sharp locks eyes with Social
Services. He says in a steely voice:

He’s not getting shock therapy.

I realize that this is mostly meant as a joke, but the fact is that Sharp never says anything in this scene with Social Services that implies he wants to adopt Sam for any other reason than it would not be right to let him remain a ward of the state. That is way too generic an application of the rule Sam has spent the whole script teaching:

7 out of 10 points.

4. Is there (a) anything unique in the story being told or (b) in the writing itself? (each part worth 5 points)

Part A) Well, I’m going to be a little bit contrary with Mr. Anderson on both parts of this question. The fact is that I really liked this story. I read it from beginning to end without stopping and it had a significant level of resonance for me. However, I can’t say these characters are completely unique. I’ve seen Mr. Anderson tell some version of this quirky duckling story several times now. He tells it well, and I liked the telling but [because of the accumulation of his own work] it is hard to call it unique any more.

4 out of 5 points.

Part B) The dialogue and characterization are excellent, expert level, etc etc. But, I did notice that it always seems like you’re reading a Wes Anderson script for a longer time than you think you’ll spend reading it based on the page count. Since he is his own director, he can forgive himself his description transgressions. I can’t, at least not fully:

3 out of 5 points.

5. Is there a sufficient avenue to production? In other words, does the script have something about it that will make actors want to act in it, directors want to direct it, and producers want to risk their money producing it? (10 points)

The quirkiness was guaranteed to attract some name actors. The director was a lock. Because the guaranteed director also comes with a built in audience, the route to production was assured.

I don’t think this love story about a couple of grown up 12 year old kids could say all of the above would still be true if Wes Anderson weren’t the driving force behind it:

6 out of 10 points.

Total Score: 86


4 responses to “Moonrise Kingdom

    • I think it’s interesting how my engagement with the material correlates strongly with the quality of the review.

      Were I better critic, this wouldn’t have to be so.

  1. Disagree! Critics should embrace the idea that criticism is in the teller and not the object. Universal objectivity about movies is boring. And the primary job of the critic in my opinion is to champion art that they love, so it’s okay to allow that enthusiasm to lens your reviews — it will happen anyways. This is why I try to read a wide variety of criticism –often even ones I disagree with close to 100% of the time — I accept that each critic has a particular set of tastes that colors everything.

    I haven’t even seen Moonrise as I’m not the biggest Wes Anderson fan, but now I will because I can watch it using the above rubric.

    • My review of The Counselor [now lost] counts as a time where I was disengaged with the material but still felt I got something good out of the reviewing process. The idea crystallized in me after reading that script that violence is equal to magic. Harry Potter casting a spell on screen has the same effect on an audience as a motorcyclist getting decapitated.

      I owe my internal acknowledgement of that idea to Cormac McCarthy’s poorly orchestrated script.

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