directed by Wes Anderson
starring Kara Hayward, Jared Gilman, Bruce Willis, Edward Norton
Focus / Indian Paintbrush
Life's tough on the edge of puberty, and mental illness doesn't help. Neither Sam (Jared Gilman) nor Suzy (Kara Hayward) are certifiable just yet, but she keeps hitting things like mirrors and teachers and he accidentally starts fires. The pair plans a daring escape on scenic New Penzance Island -- it's just big enough to get lost in, but not so big as to challenge Sam's Khaki Scout survival skills. At 11, he's wearing a 'coon skin cap and smoking a corn cob pipe while Suzy is a snappy dresser and digs fantasy fiction. As they trek across the island, Scoutmaster Ward (Edward Norton) and Island Police Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) track them while calming down Suzy's parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand). Frankly, if you lived with them you'd punch out a mirror or two and leave on the high tide. Sam stays one jump ahead of these emotionally vacant adults, and soon enough we have a dramatic scene high above a flooded church yard with lightning flashing and waves crashing. There's a Hero's Journey in here if you look hard enough, and it's a good one.
That description doesn't capture the charm of this loving tribute to young love and escaping difficult circumstances. Director Wes Anderson's minute attention to detail, sight gags, and private references give this story a rich, engaging texture that so many modern films replace with CGI bombast. From detailed maps of the imaginary island, to a fourth wall breaking narrator (Bob Balaban), to a fragile tree house 80 feet in the air, there's always something engaging just on the edge of the frame. Possibly the most spectacular scene is the ridiculously overproduced church pageant "Noye's Fludde" (by Benjamin Britten). But there's little time to absorb the details; each person populating this island is a story unto himself. Bill Murray as Suzy's histrionic father is stiff as a board until it's time to go a-lawyering, and then he lights up like a police car. The pack of juvenile delinquent Khaki Scouts is each carved as a distinct person; none are faceless mooks with only hate in their hearts. But the real fun lies with Suzy and Sam. Alone, they teeter emotionally but quickly become an effective and efficient team. Sam plans, prepares, and executes without ever becoming flustered. Suzy dreams, but submits to Sam's mastery and leavens the job he sets for himself. Together they find the paradise they have fantasized, only to have it ripped away.
True, Anderson overuses yellow filters to force a warm, other-worldly glow on the landscape and allows some noticeable anachronisms and minor plot holes, but we can write them off to his surrealist style. The love story between the children feels real, but the implied sex pushes a modern boundary. I won't say this is inappropriate for children, but I'd recommend you have that little talk you've been avoiding. That should make the whole adventure that much more interesting.