Pre-teens on the run—one from emotionally unavailable parents, the other from a Dickensian nightmare that includes a heartless personification of “Social Services” (played by Narnia’s White Witch, no less). Add to this basic plot a lost-but-lovable cop, a few mean-spirited quasi-bullies, some goofy yet endearing comic-relief kids, daring rescue schemes, and plenty of laughs along the way…
…and all of this could describe a live-action G-rated Disney film of a certain era, couldn’t it?
But of course Moonrise Kingdom’s young Sam and Suzy aren’t just running away from uncaring people and non-optimal situations, they are running away with each other and to each other—to the idea of a life shared, however brief that time together may realistically turn out to be. As a result, we end up instead with a PG-13 film that features some halting sexual first steps between twelve-year-olds, and an overall text that’s absolutely not targeted to the same age group that the narrative focuses on.
And, backed by smart and/or stunning execution in nearly every aesthetic department, the film becomes a hit.
It’s a hit with all the adults who have made middle grade fiction so popular these last few years as well as many folks who’d never get caught dead reading a book in that category. Yet what these two audience segments have in common with each other, and with the rest of us, is a growing appreciation of the tween as stand-in for their adult selves.
That’s not to say that YA Lit won’t continue to outsell MG Lit, or that teen movies won’t out-gross tween ones. Nor am I claiming that creative artists whose work is conceived/marketed under the YA banner are becoming bankrupt of ideas and should downshift a bit.
To be sure, teen characters will always appeal to pop culture fans of various ages: their passions, their quests for identity and meaning in the grandest and most universal senses—these will continue to resonate. Almost by definition, fictional teens will embody something important for audiences both younger and older than they are: what we could be, what we once were… or might have been.
Tweens, though, in their apparent pragmatism, basic optimism, directness, and—perhaps most tellingly—in the non-central role of sexuality in their social and psychological makeup represent something else, at least for adults of the type who have thrilled to Moonrise Kingdom.
Let’s return to Sam and Suzy to see what this something else might be. Their immediate concerns during their escapades are very much like those of—well, please map your own experiences onto the narrative. Do the story events remind you of what it was like to navigate the post-school adult world, being truly self-sufficient for the first time? It’s a world that’s challenging, certainly, but also one that advertises breathless adventures waiting to be had. Or does the casual emotional intimacy of Moonrise Kingdom more closely recall your first let’s-live-together experience? Consider how Suzy and Sam take stock of their possessions, explaining the personal meanings as well as the practical values of specific items (see the wonderful clip below for an example). Isn’t this what grownups in committed relationships do? Moreover, there’s physical attraction… but there’s also the acknowledgement that this is but one aspect of the overall connection that partners share.
In short, with Moonrise Kingdom it’s not an idealized portrait of childhood that we’re presented with but an idealized version of adulthood.
Critic Alexander Huls has insightfully touched on just these sorts of issues in a recent piece about the film:
But what makes the young couple of “Moonrise Kingdom” stand out isn’t that their affection for each other represents the idealized love of two kids – it’s that their affection is the idealized love of two human beings who act better than adults do half the time. Their amour for each other is unquestioning, certain, accepting, open, forgiving, and kind. They have disagreements like adults (whether it’s Sam’s laughing at Suzy, or Sam’s anger at Suzy’s orphan fantasy), but overcome them easily. They love each other as they are, perfectly encapsulated for me in the touching scene where Sam admits to the potential of bed-wetting and his confession is met without even a flinch of anything but Suzy’s acceptance and understanding. A lot of times when adults consider the love of two kids they both long for its innocence in the same breath that they patronizingly dismiss it as the kind of affection that can’t survive amongst adults. Suzy and Sam make the case that if kids can have this mature and healthy relationship, why can’t grown-ups?
Of course the way that Wes Anderson artfully honors both his young protagonists while subtly speaking to moviegoers who are considerably older could very well be the exception that proves the rule. Stories about tweens simply aren’t like those about teens or adults or “children,” and when their authors move us it requires a highly specialized skill set… one that is only just now becoming culturally worthwhile to develop.