"Moonrise Kingdom": How To Grow Up
What Wes Anderson's film about childhood tells us about being a grown-up – as opposed to simply being an adult
We begin on the island of New Penzance, which has had other names in other fictions. Its most well-known name (among the audience most likely reading this) is the Garden of Eden. The island is separate from the rest of the world, and it is lush with “old growth pine and maple”. It hosts the outdoor adventures romantically associated with healthy childhoods in bygone eras (in which people used words like “bygone”). The year is 1965.
Over the next three days, twelve-year-old orphan Sam Shakusky and Suzy Bishop, also twelve, will weather the storm of growing up. They will also suffer an actual storm of Biblical proportions.
This is Wes Anderson’s 2012 film, Moonrise Kingdom.
The film begins with the introduction-through-action of the Bishop family: The estranged parents drift through separate rooms, Suzy reads a fantasy novel and awaits something out there in the world to change her life in here, and her three younger brothers gather around a record player, listening to a recorded lesson on the techniques of Classical music. This morning, they are learning about variations – “Which means,” the bright voice of the absent teacher tells them, “different ways of playing the same tune.” Here we have a fine metaphor to begin with.
Childhood – the most salient theme of Moonrise Kingdom – is a score that has changed over time. We might think of the increase in hours spent inert, watching hypnotic screens, and the decrease in outdoor play. I entered adolescence in North America while it was gripped in the frenzy of the “Satanic panic”. This period transformed the childhood I was familiar with (one of playing outside, scraping my knees, looking after siblings, calling the neighbours “Aunty” and “Uncle”) into our modern, fear-inscribed conception of childhood as a time of intense vulnerability requiring constant parental vigilance. These are some of the more recent variations on the composition of childhood played by our cultural orchestra. But go back further, and we will find variations that sound so dissimilar we might wonder if they are even part of the same score.
Susan Neiman tracks some of these changes in her short work of philosophy, Why Grow Up? She describes how incomparable a modern childhood is with one lived two hundred years ago (let alone two thousand) in a single room for the whole family, in which birth, sex, life, and death were all intimate acquaintances of the child. Many of the children in Dickens’ stories are depressing reminders that innocence and freedom were not always hallmarks of childhood. Children were once thought of as family employees, sources of cheap labour.
Where Neiman’s book really excels – and which Moonrise Kingdom illustrates beautifully – is in its depiction of the variations on what it means to grow up and to be a “grown-up”. Within the broadly cohesive cultural view of childhood and maturing in modern Western societies, there are “different ways of playing the same tune” of how to grow up. Neiman ties this process to the way an individual’s understanding of Kant’s categories of “is” and “ought” – how the world is, and how it ought to be – evolves over a lifetime.
Childhood can be seen as the mere infancy of our worldviews. Of necessity, the child understands no difference between how things are and how they might be; discovery is the sole endeavour of the young mind, learning how things work and establishing patterns. Cry and nourishment arrives; that warm fullness in the belly goes along with that parental face; push the shape on the toy and it lights up. Discovery is not concerned with moral dimensions but only with practical realities.
Even once the imaginative spark takes hold and, like a small number of non-human animals, the child learns that there are a range of possibilities about where the ball is, what’s inside the box, or what’s around the corner, this is not yet the developed notion that maybe things should be a particular way. This moral impulse, this instinctive sense of “ought”, will drive the child into adolescence. This is where, at the beginning of Moonrise Kingdom, we find our pubescent protagonists, Suzy and Sam.
Suzy and Sam might both be described as the “very troubled children” referred to in the title of a book Suzy finds in her parents’ possession – Coping With The Very Troubled Child. Sam is referred to by most others in the film as Shakusky, the name bequeathed on him by deceased parents. (We are invited to wonder about a link between his orphan status and his delinquent behaviour.) He has recently decided to revoke his own membership to the Khaki Scouts of North America. He takes off in secret, prompting his boyish and (as all adults here seem to be) ineffectual scoutmaster to exclaim, “Jiminy Cricket! He flew the coop.”
Suzy Bishop’s disappearance, meanwhile, is the culmination of a series of seemingly inexplicable misbehaviours over recent months. We discover along with the scoutmaster, his troop of teenage trackers, the chief of police, and Suzy’s parents that Sam and Suzy have been long-distance admirers for weeks, writing to each other and planning their escape from the confusion and constraint of a world that makes little sense to the wide-eyed wanderers.
So the two Very Troubled Children meet in secret, saddled for a journey with necessities and luxuries (their inventory includes maps, compass, knife, and fishing equipment, as well as record player, books, one cat, and a supply of tinned cat food) they set off to cross the island, through its forests and over its streams, to reach a hidden beach they plan to make their home. Sam and Suzy share an unspoken assumption that if they can escape to the land of being grown up, they will emancipate themselves from the cage of childhood confusion.
The two of them play-act at being grown-ups, mimicking the traits and tropes they assume are part of being an adult: When they first meet up, Sam unceremoniously hands her a bunch of flowers, which she casually receives with a perfunctory “Thanks”; Suzy wears her mother’s perfume, despite being on an outdoors expedition; Sam prepares a “romantic meal for two” as they camp in the woods. I particularly adore the absurd gravity with which they treat the fact that Suzy has “stolen” library books, as if this indiscretion makes them a minor Bonnie-and-Clyde duo on the run.
In a fantastic shot that softly speaks volumes, Suzy reads a book to Sam as he sleeps, pipe in mouth, which she lovingly empties (the pipe, not his mouth). Are we watching an old married couple? A mother and her son? Two kids playing house? They are all of these and more – they contain the archetypal seeds of all of those types they may end up becoming different versions of one day. All of this is, as we each have experienced in our early lives, a normal part of adolescence. We learn, to an important extent, through mimicry.
Increasingly aware that the way things are is not always the way things should be, Sam and Suzy search for resolution to the discomfort this causes them. Their response at this early stage of their adolescence is not unusual: They push against the “wrongness” of the way life is, guided by a strong – if definitionally fuzzy – sense of how things ought to be, by trying to escape the “is”. They run less towards anything (although they are aimed at a particular spot on their map of the island and an immature picture of adulthood) and more away from the brokenness of the world.
Of course, we can see that their escape plan is doomed from the beginning, because their re-enactments of adulthood are conducted with little understanding of the metaphysics beneath the physical actions. This is revealed when Sam suggests their cat eat the “guts and eyeballs” of the fish he has caught, and Suzy responds, “That’s okay, he only eats kitten food.” Cut to a shot of their supply of tinned cat food, which announces all over its packaging that it is “ALL FISH”. They would realise that they could make use of their spare fish bits if only they understood that it is the fish in the cat food that gives it is value. Instead, Suzy is wrapped up in doing “what is done”, repeating her experience of her mother feeding the cat from cans.
On the topic of repetitions: When they finally reach the secret cove where they pitch a tent, strip down to their underwear, and are at their freest, in their own space, to explore each other and themselves, to become themselves, they inadvertently re-enact Edgar Allan Poe’s famous lament for lost love and innocence:
I was a child and she was a child, In this kingdom by the sea, But we loved with a love that was more than love – I and my Annabel Lee – [...] [H]er highborn kinsmen came And bore her away from me, To shut her up in a sepulchre In this kingdom by the sea.
Here, at the midpoint in the story, in their own Moonrise Kingdom by the sea, Suzy’s parents track them down and tear them apart. Just as the “is” of things has been divorced from the “ought”, Sam is separated from Suzy. With this division, they are confronted with the question that leads to the conclusion of adolescence and defines the kind of grown-up you are to be: How will you confront the trauma of an imperfect, unjust, incomplete world?
Our young lovers have been pulled apart from one another, and in this division have been given their clearest demonstration of the gulf between “is” and “ought”. They want to be together, to be happy and free, but they are denied this. Suzy laments this reality, saying innocently, naively, but not without indignation, “We’re in love. We just want to be together. What’s wrong with that?” This is a common youthful response to the distance between the world as it is and as it should be: Why? Why is the world not as it ought to be?
Suzy’s outraged inquisition into this fundamental fracture in moral reality comes as she sits in a bath, being washed by her mother, who loves her daughter and yet cannot connect with her. The older woman has developed a strategy of suppressing her sense of the “ought” (represented by her covertly conducted liaisons with the chief of police, which she ends halfway through the movie) and embracing what “is” (by remaining wife to a husband who feels as little for and as far from her as she for and from him).
As Suzy’s mother bathes her daughter, she notices the makeshift earrings Sam put in Suzy’s ears. They are made out of fishing tackle and hooks, a gift he gave to her on their beach. (“Are your ears pierced?” he asks her – cut to her sobbing as he pushes the hook through her earlobe, a line of blood trailing down her neck, evoking the obvious metaphors of menstruation and virginity. Remember this moment; we will return to it later.) Now, Suzy’s mother touches the earrings and asks despondently, “How are we going to get these fish-hooks out?”
Here, we see the approach so often proffered to young adults as a salve to soothe the suffering of moral indignation. Pull out the fish-hooks, rid yourself of passion. Purge yourself of the sense of “ought” and learn to live with the “is”. This is, of course, a mere palliative – the pain is diminished through distraction, but the cause remains untouched. The injustice that provoked horror and, most importantly, a desire to right the wrong remains out there in the world, but in the solipsistic space of experience, we no longer care that it exists. Worse, as Susan Neiman points out in her book, we frequently applaud ourselves for our “maturity” in stoically accepting the world as it presents itself to us, and we condescend to adolescents for their moral indignance, assuring them (and at the same time ourselves) that they will one day “grow out of it”.
We most frequently see this “giving in” with regards to politics and political activism, but it is most poignant in the more subtle and insidious daily realities of dreams and loves put aside as mere “childish things”. Suzy’s mother in this regard reminds me of a moment in the TV series The Office (the superior original version, which deals in complexities not caricatures), in which the character Dawn reveals:
“When people said, ‘What do you do?’ I would say, ‘Well, I’m an illustrator, but I do some reception work for a little bit of extra cash.’ ... Then [my partner] thought it would be a good idea for us both to get full-time jobs, and then you’re knackered after work and it’s hard to do illustrating. So now, when people ask me what I do, I say I’m a receptionist.”
And this sad scene returns me to Moonrise Kingdom, reminding me of the scoutmaster who, when asked what his “real job” is, first says it is maths teacher, and a moment later reconsiders: “I’m going to change my answer, in fact. This is my real job. Scout Master, Troop 55. I’m a maths teacher on the side.” He is an adult still struggling, somewhere inside, with the impetus towards the resignation of safely labelling a grand hope little more than a “hobby”. But he has not yet surrendered completely, as his second answer and affirmation of his true calling attests.
Neiman argues that this surrender is often to the benefit of governments and other authority figures who would keep us distracted by the shininess of new household and electronic toys, and with endless choices about which thing to buy and in which colour, brand, size, etc., so we forget that the really important decisions are being made for us. However, as Moonrise Kingdom shows us, this encouragement to drop the “ought” and accept the “is” can often come from a genuine desire on the part of loving, if misguided, parents and caregivers to numb their loved ones to the sufferings of reality.
“All mankind makes mistakes,” the chief of police sagely councils Sam, after taking him in until social services can pick up the boy. “It’s our job to try to protect you from making the dangerous ones.” This is the loving but misguided motivation that leads to parental overreach. After this concise explanation for the adults’ efforts to keep Sam from Suzy, he offers the boy a slug of beer; evidently, potential heartache is one of the “dangerous” mistakes the cop must protect Sam from, but not the dangers of alcohol or underage drinking. Incidentally, I am not convinced this offer of beer is incidental, from a sub-textual point of view: Drink is one of the many numbing intoxicants adults use to suppress the pain of disillusionment.
Our young heroes, however and happily, have not yet had their spark extinguished. They still believe (again echoing Poe’s poem) that:
... our love it was stronger by far than the love Of those who were older than we – Of many far wiser than we ...
And so they fly the coop again, this time with the help of Sam’s fellow Khaki Scouts, to the protection of an older cousin who works at a Khaki Scout summer camp on a neighbouring island. As well as helping them evade social services, the police, Sam’s scoutmaster, and Suzy’s parents, they hope Cousin Ben will perform a wedding for them. At the request, Cousin Ben says he will do it, though he insists that the marriage won’t be legal “in the state, county, or frankly any courtroom in the world due to [their] age,” but he asserts that “the ritual does carry a very important moral weight within [them]”. He adds pointedly, “You can’t enter into this lightly.”
Sam and Suzy are eager to go through with it, an enthusiasm Cousin Ben finds suspect. Rather than a sign of ardent romance, he clearly fears that it shows reckless disregard for the importance of the union. He insists that they “think about what [he’s] saying”, and he double- and triple-checks their seriousness. Unconvinced, he tells them to take a moment to sincerely and carefully think this through.
Unlike Sam and Suzy’s earlier pretending at being grown up, performances without deep understanding or consideration, this decision to marry will be instilled with what meaning it has only through careful, thoughtful engagement. This is also central to Susan Neiman’s thesis in Why Grow Up? Being grown up, in Neiman’s view, is not about seeking stability and comfort at the expense of philosophical enquiry. Adulthood does not take an ostrich pose towards complexity, with head in the sand. Instead, being a grown-up means doing the work of confronting the injustices of the “is” and the pain of the unmet “ought”.
The reward for this comes necessarily from this very attitude of mature attention – you will also experience more deeply and richly the joys of what “is” and will be motivated to growth by the sense of the “ought”. Suzy and Sam are not afforded the luxury of flippancy, thanks to Cousin Ben’s order to carefully consider their marriage. They are required to give more of themselves to do this; their resulting marriage, therefore, is all the more profound for their having engaged meaningfully with its meaning.
The grown-up attention Neiman advocates for is precisely the tool needed to reach a grown-up response to the “is/ought” divide. And it is one we should never put aside, because being a grown-up means continually growing up. It is not a place, a pinnacle, to be reached; it is a way of being in the world. As Neiman so elegantly and compellingly puts it:
“Keeping one eye on the way the world ought to be, while never losing sight of the way it is, requires permanent, precarious balance. It requires facing squarely the fact that you will never get the world you want, while refusing to talk yourself out of wanting it.”
If childhood is an Edenic period in one’s early life, in which there is no awareness of – and therefore no disjunction between – what “is” and what “ought” to be, then growing up is something like a return to that Garden. It is not the same as before you left, because you bring back to it the lessons and knowledge gained through leaving it. But it is strikingly similar in its being a place where you are not needlessly troubled by distinctions between “is” and “ought”. Before, this was the result of ignorance. Now, it is down to mature, courageous work to find balance.
In Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin looks at childhood through this same Biblical metaphor. Having briefly enjoyed one’s personal Garden of Eden before being cast out into the brutal world, life then “only offers the choice of remembering the garden or forgetting it”. Baldwin writes of the “madmen who remember” – those who constantly lament the loss and live obsessively in the “ought”, as the perpetually politically outraged do – and the “madmen who forget” – in the manner of wilfully ignoring the loss and looking away from the “ought”. “It takes strength to remember, it takes another kind of strength to forget, it takes a hero to do both.” A hero or, in other words, a grown-up.
It is not so ridiculous to think of being grown up as being, in some sense, heroic. Life itself is the most epic struggle any of us will undertake. This is why Neiman reminds us that Kant observed “that growing up is less a matter of knowledge than courage”. This basic truth, abstractly brought to the attention of Suzy and Sam through the existential crises of adolescence, is made more literal in the violent storm that slams into the island of New Penzance and sweeps us through the final act of the film.
The storm bellows over the island, and billowing clouds belt out thunder and lash the land with torrents of rain. It is evocative of Biblical flooding. When the deluge subsides, the damage done to New Penzance is extensive; as the film’s narrator tells us, “The coastal areas ... were battered and changed forever.” Sam and Suzy’s kingdom by the sea is “erased from the map”. Goodbye, Moonrise Kingdom. Goodbye, childhood.
Sam and Suzy too have been “battered and changed forever”, but this is no tragedy. It is hard to endure, and things are lost to the storm, but it brings good with it too. The crop yield the year after the storm is bountiful, and “the quality of the crops was said to be extraordinary”. Likewise, Sam and Suzy thrive after suffering and surviving the storm of adolescence. A descent precedes the ascent, the journey through Hell comes before the summit of Heaven, and the road of trials leads to the hero’s transformation; it is through struggle that we become strong.
Remember that scene on the beach in which Suzy has her ear pierced? She cries with the pain, endures the bleeding, takes a breath when it is done and says, “Do the other one.” She does not give up, shy away, or allow herself to be led along the easy road. She faces the pain, knowing she will be rewarded with an earring she admires. It is making choices like this that will lead her to being a kind of grown-up worth aspiring to be.
In an early scene of the film, and in true Wes Anderson style, we read the headline of an article about the Khaki Scout’s commander. He is quoted as asking irascibly and provocatively, “Are we Men or are we Mice?” In its being a direct question about self-definition and using animal imagery, it foreshadows Sam’s pointed question to Suzy, when he literally points at her (while looking dead into camera so he is pointing at the viewer like a miniature version of the military figure in Kitchener’s declamation that your country needs YOU) and asks her, “What kind of bird are you?”
Just as Sam’s gesture recalls the infamous wartime slogan of Britain, the Scout commander’s rhetorical question of mice and men echoes a wartime cartoon by Dr Seuss, in which that very question speaks to America’s isolationism. It is a question, but it is also a challenge. Will you be a mouse hiding in a hole or a person out in the world? So too with Sam’s inquiry: Are you a bird in a cage, trapped by the mindless distractions of superficial culture, or a bird flying free, exploring what it is to be truly grown up in the world?
What kind of bird are you?
Thanks to my patrons:
I am grateful to everyone who has shown their support through Patreon, and an especially huge thank you to Hayley Whitehouse-Jones, Albie Morris, Madi Stuart, Nic Morgan, Sara Jennings, Sheri Eastman, Steve Lane.
Patrons get early access to the essays, exclusive content, and are vital to keeping Art of Conversation going. Click here to be part of the conversation at my Patreon.
• Moonrise Kingdom, dir. Wes Anderson (2012)
• Why Grow Up?, Susan Neiman (2014)
• Annabel Lee, first published in “New-York Daily Tribune” (1849)
• The Office, “Appraisals”, written and dir. Ricky Gervais, Stephen Merchant (2001 – 2003)
• Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin (1956)