Moonrise Kingdom

Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Bruce Willis and Edward Norton in Moonrise Kingdom (eOne Entertainment)

There's something pure and achingly earnest about Moonrise Kingdom. It's a comedy, sure, but it's a comedy set in a world that's dead and gone, and may never even have existed in the first place. It's a movie set in 1965 by someone who wouldn't even be born for another four years.

Of course, Wes Anderson has spent most of his career telling stories like this. Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The Darjeeling Limited - even his stop-motion adaptation of Fantastic Mr. Fox - these are all films driven by longing for something that's ultimately impossible to capture. It's melancholy, in the purest sense, shot through with the understanding that we are not necessarily better for knowing that our desires are beyond our reach.

Not that the ostensible grown-ups of Moonrise Kingdom spend a lot of time thinking about that. They're too busy spending a few frantic days running up and down a little island off the coast of New England, where 12-year-old Sam (Jared Gillman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward) have run off together after declaring their love.

This comes as shocking news to Suzy's parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) who weren't aware Sam and Suzy's relationship even existed, and they mobilize the local constabulary (Bruce Willis) to find the kids and bring them home. There's only one problem; the local constabulary has been having an affair with Suzy's mother, and is more preoccupied with that than retrieving the runaways.

There are other complications. Sam's Scout troop, led by their exacting scout master (Edward Norton), are tracking the fugitive couple with their own particular set of skills, and Sam's status as an AWOL orphan requires a representative of Social Services (Tilda Swinton) to arrive on the island and join the search. It's all kind of a mess, with the adults constantly colliding with one another - and their own regrets - while Sam and Suzy hide out in an idyllic cove, alone with themselves and their future.

Everything would be perfect, really, if it wasn't for that approaching hurricane. Anderson informs us of its approach at the outset, and our knowledge of looming disaster colours the entire movie, but the characters don't have a clue. We know that Sam and Suzy's hideaway is dangerously exposed to the elements; we know the adults and Sam's scout troop are looking for them in the wrong places. It serves to infuse every moment with sadness and urgency; the movie's already in mourning for what's to come.

It's at this point that I should remind you that Moonrise Kingdom is, first and foremost, a comedy. Murray and Willis are very funny in it, nicely playing off one another as frustrated authority figures (and making me wish they'd work together again in, well, everything) and the rest of the adult cast, which eventually expands to include Harvey Keitel and Anderson fixture Jason Schwartzman, is great as well. But the comedy is underscored by the painfully real love story at its heart, with Gillman and Hayward acting out a romance that feels totally believable and painfully real, even though it's being played out by children.

That's the beauty of Anderson's approach. He makes it possible for kids to be smarter and more focused than grown-ups, and still let an adult audience understand that they're just kids, living in an intensified state because all of childhood is an intensified state. And the era in which Moonrise Kingdom is set adds another layer of sadness; Vietnam is looming, and with it the chaos of the late '60s. Even if Sam and Suzy manage to return to their hideaway somewhere down the road, they won't be the same.

Working on multiple levels isn't a new thing for Anderson, mind you; Rushmore was aware that Max Fisher was kind of an awful person, even if Max Fisher didn't. But what he does here is something different; he grants a humanity and a grace to virtually every character in the story, as though they all exist outside of the frame. It's rare to see a movie that sets itself so firmly in the mind afterwards; Moonrise Kingdom is one of the year's best pictures.

And really, it's a comedy.

E-mail Norman Wilner at houselightsup@hotmail.com