Nostalgia seems like one of the more self-indulgent emotions. That’s not to say I never feel it. Sometimes I miss north Michigan’s woods so much I could eat a pine tree-shaped air freshener. But in the face of the myriad other problems a person could possibly have, getting sentimental about the past feels kind of ridiculous. The drill sergeant from Forrest Gump who occupies my brain tells me that nostalgia is an ache you invent for yourself when there aren’t any other bruises looming. Then he tells me to give him twenty.
Based on Wes Anderson’s wistful body of work, I do not think he has met the drill sergeant. Anderson’s films are populated by dreamers disappointed by the present: Max Fischer and Herman Blume, all the Tenenbaums and associates, the three sons of The Darjeeling Limited. His characters are misfits among their peers and lonely in the midst of family. They imagine they were happier in the past, primarily because at least back then wasn’t now. Therefore his movies possess extremely precise visual articulations of nostalgia. All three adult siblings in The Royal Tenenbaums dress to evoke the promise of their youths. Richie wears the tennis outfit that calls back to his glory days on the courts, Chas picks the track suit that’s an emblem of his businessman’s vigor, and Margot stays faithful to an ensemble that reflects a twelve-year-old girl’s fantasy of literary sophistication: long fur coat, heavy eyeliner, blond hair in a simple bob held in place by a plastic barrette.
Nowhere is Anderson’s penchant for nostalgia more apparent than in his new film Moonrise Kingdom, which takes place on a New England island in 1965. Whether or not audiences were alive to witness the artifacts of mid-century Americana firsthand, they can recognize the movie’s graphic-patterned shift dresses, saddle shoes, and portable record player as shorthand for a dreamy, supposedly simpler innocence—and they can feel a sense of loss looking at a world long gone.
But innocence doesn’t mean that anybody feels content. The preteen protagonists of Moonrise Kingdom, Suzy and Sam, each feel isolated and adrift. Suzy glops on blue eyeshadow and mascara in an attempt to will herself out of her too-quiet home; even at 12 it’s clear she’s bound for New York or some other big city that won’t consider her artistic solemnity a sign of trouble. Sam, an orphan whose foster parents refuse to take him back, is far worse off.
Childhood tends to get romanticized in movies, just as Suzy first romanticizes Sam’s life. She confesses that she wishes she was an orphan too—all the protagonists of the adventure books she totes around in her suitcase are. Sam looks at her, quiet and fierce. “I love you, but you don’t know what you’re talking about,” he says.
Sam’s life isn’t a fairy tale, and childhood isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. So Sam and Suzy turn their own lives into an adventure story: they run away to camp on rocky beaches while the plastic record player plays woozy music they can dance to. Their love for one another makes them feel almost like adults—they even exchange vows in a ceremony led by Jason Schwartzman, playing a troop leader with a passion for age-inappropriate officiating. He’s wildly sympathetic, being the only person in the movie willing to take Suzy and Sam with the seriousness they badly want (and deserve).
So a movie steeped in picturesque nostalgia actually turns out to be a treatise on desperation to break out of it. Suzy and Sam’s adventure is driven by their desire for forward motion, which is why the film begins and ends with Suzy gazing out at the world beyond her window through a pair of prized binoculars. She’s not keeping the world at a distance, she’s reaching out for it.
Still, by the film’s conclusion she’s willing to wait a while, since Sam’s around now to wait with her. Their wild kingdom isn’t forgotten. Sam’s even painting a picture of it on an easel. But they don’t have to be nostalgic, because they’re with each other in the present. Love is in the thrill of being recognized and known, and in the freedom to declare yourself as you are. Which is why they were both goners the moment Sam spotted Suzy in her somber raven costume, pointed a finger at her alone, and asked, “What kind of bird are you.”