“All children, except one, grow up,” wrote JM Barrie in the first line of his masterpiece, Peter Pan. For decades, Peter Pan has been regarded as the essence of childhood; the boy who refuses to grow up and become sullied by the ways of the adult world. However, a closer reading of Peter Pan reveals Barrie’s true feelings about boys who prolong maturity. Peter is absent-minded, selfish and petulant, often putting others in danger in his quest for adventure and risk. Peter Pan is actually a defense of maturity, as evidenced by the way Peter ends up alone at the end of the story, stuck in his ways while everyone else around him leaves childhood behind.
We’ve come a long way from Peter Pan. Nowadays, it seems the cultural norm to stave off maturity as long as humanly possible. The man-child films of Will Ferrell, Judd Apatow and Adam Sandler populate the market, where grown men acting like children has become a comedy mainstay. Dozens of articles have been written examining the rise of prolonged adolescence and the state of adulthood is increasingly fretted over.
Wes Anderson’s latest film, Moonrise Kingdom, explores many of these themes. Set on the fictional island of New Penzance in Northeastern America, Moonrise Kingdom is the story of two 13-year-old lovers, Sam and Suzy, who bond over their mutual status as outsiders and decide to run away together, sending his scout troop and her family into conniptions. But where Judd Apatow mines humor from grown men acting as boys, Anderson mines humor from children acting as adults. In what is perhaps the movie’s most telling episode, Sam and Suzy wind up getting married in a last-minute ceremony by a sleazy scoutmaster, played by Jason Schwartzman.
“I can’t offer you a legally binding union,” he says. “It won’t hold up in the state, the county or frankly any courtroom in the world due to your age, lack of license and failure to get parental consent. But, the ritual does carry a very important moral weight within yourselves. You can’t enter into this lightly. Look into my eyes: Do you love each other?”
To which the young protagonists, chomping loudly on gum, immediately respond, “Yes we do.” The idea of two thirteen-year-olds promising to love one another for the rest of their lives is played for obvious laughs. It seems absurd in this day and age that anyone that young could possibly know who their soul mate is. Like Romeo and Juliet, these two star-crossed lovers are so sure of their love that they’re willing to die for one another. The only difference is that Shakespeare went for tragedy while Anderson goes for comedy.
There was a time when children in and of themselves were compelling characters. In Home Alone, Kevin McCallister was the quintessential child-as-hero character, protecting his lonely house from two bumbling thieves while his parents are away on vacation. While Kevin did prove smarter than most of the adults in that movie, in many ways he was still just a kid – sliding down the front staircase of his house on a sled, jumping on his parent’s bed without fear of being reprimanded, and staying up late watching gangster movies and eating humongous bowls of ice cream. For many children in my generation, myself included, Home Alone was the ultimate in wish fulfillment cinema. But in Moonrise Kingdom, Sam and Suzy show off a decidedly more mature side. The closest they ever come to actual childlike behavior is sucking on pebbles to try to hydrate themselves, and when that doesn’t work, Sam remarks, “I brought some water too.”
In films like this, it is often the adult characters that often prove to be more childish than the children. In Moonrise Kingdom, there’s the incompetent Scoutmaster Ward (Edward Norton), who is constantly losing his scouts, the lonely policeman Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), who is carrying on an affair with Suzy’s mother, and Suzy’s parents Laura and Walt (Frances McDormand and Bill Murray), two lawyers who call each other “counselor” and sleep in two different beds, quizzing each other on the outcomes of their individual cases. One night, Walt and Laura lie in bed, worrying about Suzy and the state of their family:
Laura: “I’m sorry, Walt.”
Walt: “It’s not your fault. Which injuries are you apologizing for, specifically?”
Laura: “Specifically? The ones that still hurt.”
Walt: “Half of those were self-inflicted. I hope the roof flies off and I get sucked into space. You’ll be better off without me.”
Laura: “Stop feeling sorry for yourself.”
Laura: “We’re all they’ve got, Walt.”
Walt: “It’s not enough.”
If Sam and Suzy are trying to grow up before they’re ready, the adults in their life are wishing for a simpler time when they weren’t burdened by the responsibilities of adulthood. At times, it’s difficult to figure out who really is more mature – the two adolescent runaways, so sure of what they want out of life, or the authority figures trying desperately to hold on to some semblance of normalcy in a world that seems just beyond their comprehension.
This, then, is the crux of such stories, and why we find children-as-adults so endearing. As adults, we long for the days when things were simpler and more straightforward. Sam and Suzy’s relationship, so steadfast and sure, is contrasted against her parent’s failing marriage. Was love purer for us when we were thirteen? Probably not, but it sure is nice to remember it that way. There is something in us that wants to simplify childhood, to remember it as easier than it really was. Perhaps this is because we like the idea that there was a time in our life when we did have a few things figured out, even if it was something as ludicrous as the fact that we were going to wind up marrying the person two lockers away in our junior high school.
But let’s suppose that life was simpler when we were younger. The fact remains, as Barrie states so matter-of-factly, that all children eventually grow up. Sam and Suzy, so innocent and pure now, will eventually become more and more like Laura and Walter, lying awake late into the night and apologizing to each other for wounds they didn’t mean to inflict. In the sense that they don’t really have any idea what the “real world” has in store for them, they are just as naïve and clueless as the grown-ups.
In one of the film’s best moments, Captain Sharp and Sam sit across a table from one another in Sharp’s home and discuss the nature of coming-of-age: “Let’s face it. You’re probably a much more intelligent person than I am,” says Sharp. “In fact, I guarantee it. But even smart kids stick their fingers in electrical sockets sometimes. It takes time to figure things out. It’s been proven by history; all mankind makes mistakes.” At which point, he offers Sam a swig of his beer.
No matter what age Sam, Suzy, Sharp or any of the other adults or children in the film may be, they’re all wandering through life a little blindly, and wind up needing each other – adults and children alike – more than they know.