Every once in a while a movie comes along that I find it difficult to describe. Sometimes it is even hard to explain why I liked it. I live for those moments. How many cookie-cutter CGI extravaganzas like The Avengers, The Hobbit, and The Dark Knight Rises do you think we get in a typical year? Thirty? Forty? And how many really unusual films did I see last year? I can think of only two: Beasts of the Southern Wild, and this one.
Let me give it a try. This movie exists in a fantasy world, but not one where problems are solved by some dope in a bat suit or a bunch of stinking dwarves in a cave, or a whole bunch of idiots destroying New York in an effort to save it. This is a kinder, gentler fantasy world, a place where people care for each other. You aren’t expected to believe it, any more than you believe—at least I hope you don’t—in that asshole in the red and yellow iron flying suit.
A great part of the charm of the movie is in the production design and the cinematography. Yes, the set design! Wes Anderson has what I call an eye, and it’s surprising how many directors don’t, or have only a little bit of it. Kubrick was the master of this. Every frame of the later Kubrick movies show a fanatic attention to detail, and within a second you will know it’s a Kubrick movie. Kurosawa had it, and Hitchcock had it, in his later films. Right off, I can’t think of many other contenders. Just watch the beauty of this movie as it unfolds. The composition of each shot is so carefully thought out, the colors, the framing, the slow tracking movements. A great many shots are symmetrical, with a character framed in the center, and a lot of space on each side. And all of the space is interesting.
This is a Norman Rockwell world, of “Khaki Scouts” living in perfect tents in perfect rows. And you know those paintings known as “primitive” art? Grandma Moses was one, but there were many others. In that world, there is no perspective, all buildings have only one side. In this film, a family lives in a painting that is at the same time a lovely doll house. The camera moves from floor to floor, room to room, as if one side had been peeled off. It’s a wonderful effect.
Okay, enough about the look of it. Like I said, I can’t really describe it, you’ll have to see it for yourself. On to the story …
It’s about young love. Two 12-year-olds, Kara Hayward (who from some angles is a dead ringer for Emma Watson at that age) and Jared Gilman, fall in love and run away, Jared from the Scouts where everybody hates him, and Kara from the home of Bill Murray and Frances McDormand, basically because she’s a rebel and no one understands her. They are on New Penzance Island (another clue that this is a fantasy, if you needed another). He takes off with every outdoors implement known to man; she carries a record player and a suitcase full of fantasy books from the library. They are pursued by Bruce Willis as the island’s cop, and Edward Norton as the scout leader. The kids camp out, and begin to explore their new sexuality. No, no hot and heavy stuff. They kiss. He touches her breasts with her bra on, she remarks that she feels he is hard. And they spend the night together. What 12-year-olds haven’t done something like that? (Or wished they could.) And they are deeply in love.
I won’t say more about the plot. The movie lured me in with the wonderful look of the thing, and then caught me up emotionally as I got involved with them. And none of the others are bad guys, until the great Tilda Swinton shows up, as a character known only as “Social Services.” Willis, Norton, and everyone else really do want what’s best for these kids. So it’s both a delightful comic romp and a sweet, sweet love story. I’m a sucker for both.