This time, three cheers for the whippersnappers. While 2012 in music has featured the return of old guys, two of this year’s highest profile films have explored “the kid” in new and complex ways. In the wake of the late Maurice Sendak (who, in an interview with Stephen Colbert earlier this year, said, “I don’t write for children. I write, and somebody says ‘That’s for children.’”), Wes Anderson’s best-since-Rushmore comedy Moonrise Kingdom and Benh Zeitlin’s fantastical and invigorating Beasts of the Southern Wild have resisted using stock child characters and instead focused on the psychological complexity and fascinating viewpoints and lenses of children.
Moonrise Kingdom has been covered very well on FP, so I’ll just focus on the film in the context of “the kid.” Kingdom is mostly about the pre-teen love story between Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) and Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward), as they weather the wild woods, fellow Boy Scouts, a flood of biblical proportions, and the most difficult of all, adults. Central to the film is the idea that neither the kids, understandably so, nor the adults know what they want from life. Sam and Suzy’s respective emotional problems seem to be a mixture of biology, age, and environment. The adults, however, are a different story. Suzy’s parents, Walt (Bill Murray) and Laura (Frances McDormand), have reached the age where they’re supposed to have everything figured out. Yet, they’re unhappily married, Walt drinks wine while chopping down trees, and Laura is having an affair with the local sheriff, Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis). Captain Sharp himself comically seems to not know how to take care of kids: he serves twelve-year-old Sam beer at dinner. When Sam and Suzy are captured after their initial rendezvous, Tilda Swinton’s character “Social Services” (a very tongue-in-cheek name that perhaps references the anonymity and impersonal nature of a lot of child or foster caretakers) comes to take Sam to a juvenile refuge where he is rumored to undergo shock therapy, an infamously overused and misunderstood form of therapy, especially during the time of the film’s 1965 setting.
However, Moonrise Kingdom, as Franklin P. Laviola wrote in his FP review, works best not when it lampoons its bumbling adult characters but when it focuses on the kids. Sam and Suzy dancing to Francoise Hardy while exploring their sexuality is an instantly classic scene, as Suzy tells Sam to touch her chest and, noticing the potential look of disappointment on his face, subsequently says that she thinks they’ll grow. The most tender moment between the two comes when Suzy tells Sam that she discovered her parents’ book “Coping With the Very Troubled Child” that promises to teach them how to manage Suzy going “berserk.” Here, we see that the notion that a book could teach her apathetic parents how to deal with Suzy is just as misunderstood and absurd as Suzy’s outbursts. Sam, in contrast, at first unintentionally making her cry and insinuating that he thinks the situation is funny, touchingly declares to Suzy, “I’m on your side.”
Overall, the notion that the adventurous, innocent kid is just as lost as the adult who raises him or her is a theme that has been explored by South Park for almost two decades (oh my god, it’s really been that long). However, Anderson’s film ends with the kids, having weathered the storm, literally, growing up a little, eventually figuring out a way to stay together, outsmarting the adults who are too busy thinking about their own time and place to understand the kids.
With a completely different tone than Moonrise Kingdom, Beasts of the Southern Wild also uses the eyes of the child to explore some pretty adult topics: instead of psychological disorders and borderline existentialism, drug addiction and complications from poverty. The film takes place in a fantasy world within the Louisiana Bayou in a community called “The Bathtub” because it is separated from the rest of the world by a levee. Six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis, who better get nominated for a Best Actress Oscar) narrates the film and learns, much like Sam and Suzy, how to survive in the wild, but this time her nemesis supposedly the ruthless, prehistoric Auroch who will rise after the icecaps melt.
Beasts, like Kingdom, pits a child against the threat of a life-changing storm, one that, this time, is eerily reminiscent of Hurricane Katrina’s path, including the now-trope of residents who refuse to evacuate their homes. Ironically, Hushpuppy’s drug addicted father Wink (Dwight Henry) is a parent more steeped in reality than those in Moonrise Kingdom. He’s aware that he’s going to die soon and that the storm might decimate The Bathtub, so he teaches Hushpuppy how to capture fish and how to be strong before, during, and after the storm. Throughout the film, not only does Hushpuppy show a pension for independence and adventure, as she searches and perhaps even finds her mother, but an ability to relate to those unlike her, remarkable for a six-year-old. One of the last scenes of the film shows her friendly confrontation with the unmelted Aurochs, one that blurs the line between imagination and reality. The scene’s similarities from Where the Wild Things Are aside, this scene of any I’ve seen this year most directly follows Sendak’s legacy, one that promotes the idea that a child’s imagination often is his or her reality. The film ends with Wink’s death and Hushpuppy’s new position as the future leader of “The Bathtub,” once again featuring a child rising above the rest.
As in my piece on new music by old guys last week, I haven’t explored every film released this year that portrays the kid in a new and compelling way. Rian Johnson’s brilliant futuristic action flick Looper uses telekinesis to symbolize a child’s inability to understand and control himself. The Belgian duo, the Dardenne brothers, directed the great The Kid With a Bike (which technically came out in 2011, having premiered at that year’s Cannes film festival), a French-language film about a twelve-year-old boy dealing with his father’s abandonment. Beasts and Kingdom, however, offer the most unlikely comparison, one arguably more unlikely than Kingdom and Seth MacFarlane’s Ted (which FP’s Keith Meatto explored in a piece earlier this year). One stylized, one more explicitly rooted in fantasy, both are at times straight-up raw portrayals of children, from their laughter to their tears, from their innocence to their discovery. Moonrise Kingdom and Beasts of the Southern Wild respect the psychology, wonder, imagination, and intelligence of children. They’re true kids movies, made not for children, but about children. Don’t roll over quite yet, Maurice.
Jordan Mainzer is a student of History and Hispanic Studies at Brown University and the editor of art, architecture, and design blog DRA. His most recent FP article discussed new albums by Dr. John, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, and Jimmy Cliff. He is neither a kid nor an old guy.