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Cannes opens with a comedy

Director never forgot wistfulness of childhood

Charles Ealy

Wes Anderson kicked off the traditionally dark and serious Cannes Film Festival on Wednesday with a quirky, memorable comedy, "Moonrise Kingdom," that should please his die-hard fans and newcomers alike.

Like last year's "Midnight in Paris," "Moonrise Kingdom" takes us into a seemingly fantastical world, except this time the action is dominated by two 12-year-olds who have fallen in love and decide to run away together on a tiny, unpaved, stuck-in-time island off the coast of Rhode Island.

Their fervent belief in the promise of love stands in sharp contrast to the world-weary view of the movie's dysfunctional adults, whose lives are something of a mess.

"Moonrise" marks a return to form for Anderson, and ranks among his best — "Bottle Rocket," "Rushmore," "The Royal Tenenbaums" and "Fantastic Mr. Fox." It's filled with wry humor and odd characters: a mother (Frances McDormand) who communicates with her family in her multi-level home via megaphone; a sorrowful, love-seeking cop (Bruce Willis) who rarely is called upon to solve a crime in his bucolic community; a scout master (Edward Norton) who strolls around summer camp issuing demerits and seems imperious but actually has a soft spot; and a frightful social worker (Tilda Swinton) who wears a hilarious but stern-looking outfit and whose name is literally Social Services.

The meticulous sets and fashions reinforce the time element: 1965, with portable, battery-run record players; plaid pants and skirts; a telephone operator at a switchboard; and the ever-present cigarettes dangling from the mouths of adults — even the scout master.

In this environment, 12-year-old social outcasts Sam and Suzy meet during a church performance of Benjamin Britten's "Noye's Fludde," or "Noah's Flood." Sam (Jared Gilman) is an orphan who's living with disapproving foster parents who have told him they don't want him anymore. And Suzy (Kara Hayward) feels completely at odds with her parents (Bill Murray and McDormand) as well as her brothers, especially when she discovers a pamphlet that her parents have been reading about how to deal with a "very troubled child."

Sensing a connection, Sam and Suzy hatch a plot — they'll run away together, even though it's a rather silly notion, since the island where they live is so small. But they romanticize the idea of being lovers on the lam, so Sam, who flees his tent during a summer scouting session, brings what he thinks are tools for survival in the wilderness. And the saddle oxford-clad Suzy meets him with a portable record player, books from the local library and a cat.

Their interactions in the woods make up the majority of the film. And those interactions are as awkward and funny as you might expect in an Anderson ode. When discussing a dead pet, Suzy asks Sam whether he was "a good dog." Putting on the airs of an existential artist, Sam answers, "Who's to judge?" And during their initial kissing, Suzy explains to Sam the notion of making their tongues touch and how to make the best use of his hands.

The disappearance of Sam and Suzy eventually sends waves of alarm through the placid island community, especially since the movie's narrator (Bob Balaban) pops up on screen to tell us that a storm of historic proportions is threatening the island.

The movie's climax occurs during the ferocious storm that batters the island and causes various characters to make life-changing decisions. And one of the closing scenes features a shot in silhouette that's both hilarious and suitable for framing.

Music plays a big role in "Moonrise Kingdom." Benjamin Britten dominates the score by Alexandre Desplat. And the portable record player plays a central role. Suzy's brothers, in fact, gather round it regularly to listen to "A Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra" — yet another Anderson nod to the quirks of growing up.

Anderson says that he came up with the idea for the "Moonrise Kingdom" script over several years, and that he himself found a pamphlet about dealing with a "very troubled" child on the refrigerator at his Houston home. But Anderson says he never acted on his school-age crushes and did not run away.

Still, Anderson seems to have never forgotten the wistfulness of childhood, as most of his movies show. And at its heart, "Moonrise Kingdom" deals with kids who are on the cusp of sexual awakening and desperately want someone else in the world to accept them as desirable. As it turns out, the adults are still searching for the same thing.

While "Moonrise Kingdom" set a mirthful tone in Cannes, the festival headed into much more serious territory quickly. Egyptian director Yousry Nasralah presented "After the Battle" on Wednesday evening, dealing with a henchman who helps attack protesters in Tahrir Square on Feb. 2, 2011, and suffers the consequences from his neighbors. And on Thursday, French director Jacques Audiard was scheduled to screen "Rust and Bone," which stars Matthias Schoenaerts ("Bullhead") as a father who is suddenly the main caregiver for his 5-year-old son. Audiard is best known for the prison drama "A Prophet."