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MOVIE REVIEW: 'Moonrise Kingdom' a stylish tale of preteen love

MOONRISE KINGDOM

(PG-13)

3 and 1/2 stars out of 4

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In this film image released by Focus Features, from left, Kara Hayward, Jared Gilman and Jason Schwartzman are shown in a scene from "Moonrise Kingdom." (AP Photo/Focus Features, Niko Tavernise)

During his 15-year career, writer/director Wes Anderson has made seven feature films and, with a couple of minor differential tweaks here and there, they're all variations on the same theme. This is not necessarily a bad thing; all of Anderson's movies are good and a few of them are great. He found his creative groove early on, it worked and he's stuck with it. The same thing could be rightfully said about Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese and Alfred Hitchcock. What's that phrase? "Don't fix it if it's not broke?"

Anderson revels in what have been (tiredly) referred to as quirky stories that champion society's oddball, ostracized, offbeat and otherwise marginal characters and he does so with a visual style that has become instantly identifiable. Within minutes of watching one of Anderson's movies you know who is manning the controls. Again, this is not a problem -- just as long as he keeps making original, high-quality movies. The formula is only bad when it results in mediocrity.

Next to the stop-motion animated "Fantastic Mr. Fox," "Moonrise Kingdom" is Anderson's most mainstream-friendly work to date, relatively speaking. It's also his first fully romantically themed flick and in true contrarian Anderson style, the two leads are preteens. They'll be more to follow on them in a little bit.

Set on a fictional island that appears to be located somewhere in New England, "Moonrise Kingdom" takes place in 1965, a year on the front side of what would lead to major social change. There are literally thousands of tiny details the production and design teams painstakingly came up with to authentically reflect this iconic period. The dingy dark yellow and olive green color palate also lends the film an almost sepia tone that makes it look like a faded home movie. Some might find this approach not particularly appealing but rarely has a period piece looked so convincingly real.

Considering its short running time (96 minutes), Anderson and co-writer Roman (son of Francis) Coppola take the entirety of the first act establishing their characters and the plot. There are a half-dozen big name stars included (Bruce Willis, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, Edward Norton, Bill Murray and Harvey Keitel) but all of them appear in against-type supporting roles. This offers further evidence of the kind of pull Anderson has with the acting community. Like with Woody Allen and Quentin Tarantino, everybody wants to be in one of his movies and no one is ever concerned about the size of the part because they know it will be juicy and challenging.

Now, back to the kids ...

Even amongst the sparsely available 10- to 12-year-old acting pool, Jared Gilman (as Sam) and Kara Hayward (as Suzy) would be considered the most raw of newcomers. Neither has ever acted in a movie (or a TV show for that matter) before. For a director as exacting and particular as Anderson, this was a gargantuan gamble -- especially as they are the leads and have to carry the entire film pretty much on their own.

Perhaps realizing he shouldn't push his luck too far, Anderson kept the kids' collective dialogue to a minimum, as opposed to his usual style where characters speak a mile a minute. Gilman and Hayward also -- certainly by design -- deliver their lines with flat, practically emotionless tones. There are no bits of bug-eyed histrionics, whining, squealing or the type of exaggerated cuteness usually associated with movie characters this age.

What Anderson has done -- so sneakily -- is to have these children behave like real children. With few exceptions, boys and girls in the throes of "first love" are tentative not only about the opposite sex, but with the confusion regarding their own rapidly transitioning hormones. The bulk of what's discussed between Sam and Suzy is mostly incidental small talk, but when they do tackle weightier matters, it gets serious.

A word to parents considering taking preteen children to see this film about pre-teen children: don't. There's a single scene that lasts for about a minute where Sam and Suzy French kiss and let their hands wander while in their underwear. It's not dirty as such but it is highly suggestive and will make even the most tolerant adult squirm in their seat when next to their child. This, in tandem Anderson's decision to adorn the older-than-she looks Hayward with garish makeup and skimpy costumes is his only gaff and it's a big one. If this facet had been toned-down or eliminated entirely, Anderson could have probably received a "PG" rating and thus made his brilliant but slightly risque film fully family-friendly. (Focus Features)