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It’s disconcerting to reach an age, out here in the middle distance, when going to the movies seems more a chore or a challenge than a welcome pleasure. For years, I went to the movies twice a week. I saw everything my kids saw, and more, until I grew weary of car crashes, on-screen shootouts, and characters spouting plenty of attitude but little heart or intelligence. My kids long ago grew old enough to take themselves to the movies, and I am relatively content with carefully chosen DVDs and cable TV channels to surf.
This summer’s promised blockbuster line-up of high budget, back-to-back superheroes —The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, and Spiderman — their trailers rattling the theater with sonic booms, did little to urge me toward the multiplex.
But twice this summer, a season across America that has felt like a perpetual rehearsal for the end of the world, I’ve gone to movies that made me forget the storms and tragedies of the real world, and transported me somewhere unexpected. Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom and Behn Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild made the movie house feel like a dark, cool haven for the imagination.
Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom has been described by its director/screenwriter/producer as “a memory of a fantasy.” Two odd duck 12-year olds — Sam and Suzy, played by Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward — run away from their respective grown-ups, social isolation, and general boredom, and set out on foot for a romantic adventure across a fictionalized island off the coast of New England. The title of the film represents both the summer idyll of their fantasies, and the stretch of beach on which they share their first kiss. Anderson’s shots are meticulously groomed, richly colored, the sets scrupulously laden with artifacts of his imaginative version of 1965. And behind the scenes of Suzy’s and Sam’s escapade, the adults, also highly stylized, haplessly tend to their frazzled, prescribed lives. There is a winsomeness at play in this escapist fantasy that adult viewers will likely take to heart and young viewers will rightly miss. Moonrise Kingdom celebrates the youthful appetite for escape, romance, and adventure, while gently reminding us that the older we get the more flat-footed we and our worlds become.
Beasts of the Southern Wild visits another coast made hyper-real, the far southern tip of Louisiana, beyond the levee, where alligators crawl and the backwaters seethe with crabs, shrimp, and crawfish. A tiny girl named Hushpuppy wanders the ruins of her homeplace, the Bathtub, holding these creatures and others up to her ear to hear their heartbeats. Hushpuppy, played by 6-year old Quvenzhane Walls, an extraordinarily expressive child with a tiny bow mouth and fierce physicality, faces several real-life beasts: an absent mother, a dying father, a hurricane and rising tides, the loss of her home, and the possible end of the world when the ice cap melts, something she thinks about a lot. She’s got a no-nonsense school teacher who uses her tattoo to teach her students about pending disaster in the form of mythical horned beasts, the Aurachs.
“Y’all need to learn to look out for yourselves,” she warns, and Hushpuppy takes heed, defying massive forces of nature to survive; navigating the obstacle course of loving her anarchic, drunken, charismatic father; and setting out on a quest to find her lost mother.
The odds are not good, but we never doubt this pint-sized hero’s capacity to persevere, even when she glares defiantly, brown eye to brown eye, right into the snout of the Aurach, a creature fashioned by the filmmakers from a baby pig into something primal and daunting.
Hurricanes and floods are on the march in both Moonrise Kingdom and Beasts of the Southern Wild, and as we sit in the theater, lost in the fictional worlds of these child protagonists, we know that real disasters call up supernatural responses from real humans, and that we can’t call on those who supposedly know more than us to make it through. Watching these films, we remember feeling invincible and eager and unwavering, and we remember how quickly that feeling can fade.
It’s not about adrenaline and high-powered weapons and men in capes with supernatural flying abilities and digital effects and sonic booms. It’s about kids who don’t fit in, who live in places we know don’t really exist, but who live with a courage and authenticity of feeling that, in the memory of our fantasies, is the real thing.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.