• Juvenile Delinquency and the “Sinister Adolescents” of Moonrise Kingdom

    Wes Anderson’s Film About Two Misunderstood Preteens Has More in Common with Terrence Malick’s Badlands Than it Might Seem

    On September 5th, 1965, the Courier of Waterloo, Iowa ran an article concerning the scourge of juvenile delinquency. The juvenile caseload was “small but involved,” the headline read, presided over by a judge who “can’t reach youngsters.” Twenty juvenile cases had been tried in the neighboring city of Cedar Falls across the past nine months, and though this number fell well below the number of adult cases that made their way through the courts, these situations were far more complex. In some cases, so-called delinquents appeared before the judge not because they’d broken the law but rather at “the request of parents who find their children ungovernable.”

    “They are the ‘shook-up generation,’” John Dos Passos wrote in his 1958 ode to juvenile delinquency, “The Sinister Adolescents.” “Demonic, but lovable under it all.”

    Coincidentally, the September Sunday that saw the Courier publish its story also provides the setting for the conclusion of Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) and Suzy Bishop’s (Kara Hayward) dead-end exodus from New Penzance island, the primary location for Wes Anderson’s 2012 film Moonrise Kingdom. Sam and Suzy are themselves budding juvenile delinquents—or, very troubled children, to paraphrase the title of the handbook Suzy finds stashed atop her family’s fridge.

    These two pint-sized rebels have not just run away from home, they’ve assaulted two of their peers in the process (Suzy stabbing one in the back with a pair of lefty scissors, Sam shooting another in both arms with an air rifle), becoming bona fide fugitives. And the potential consequences for these and their other transgressions are dire—by September 5th, 1965, the last of the story’s three fraught days, the orphaned Sam is the target of Social Services (as embodied by an officious Tilda Swinton), who surmises that he’s a likely candidate for institutionalization, and even electroshock therapy.

    Sam has been given up on. Though he believed himself to finally be part of a family, he’s recently learned that his foster parents have banished him from their home for ungovernable behavior. Suzy’s parents are trying not to give up on her, too. “Why is everything so hard for you?” her mother (Frances McDormand) asks in reference to what we’ve seen as a withdrawn lifestyle punctuated with verbal and physical assaults. Neither child relishes their emotionally turbulent life; Sam admits with stoic chagrin that he understands why people “do not like [his] personality,” while Suzy despairs over her inescapable tendency to “go berserk.”

    Anderson does not soft-pedal the children’s misdeeds—be it Suzy’s schoolroom brawling or Sam’s potentially narcoleptic pyromania—but nor does he condemn anyone in this spiritually generous film. It’s just that neither Sam nor Suzy is able to effectively communicate with the adults charged with caring for them—or, to place blame where it’s perhaps more appropriate, none of their emotionally remote caregivers have worked hard enough to communicate with them.

    There’s something eerily naive and borderline wistful to these misbegotten souls playing house.

    And so the only alternative these two would-be delinquents can fathom is to secret themselves on a deserted New Penzance inlet, a hideaway where they can playact at adulthood, rushing headlong towards a future in which their choices might be their own.

    As Anderson discussed with Matt Zoller Seitz in the 2013 book The Wes Anderson Collection, Sam and Suzy’s seaside idyll bears strong resemblance to Terrence Malick’s 1973 debut film, Badlands, the story of two juvenile delinquents who take to the woods as refuge from a world they can’t fit into. Like Sam and Suzy, Kit (Martin Sheen) and Holly (Sissy Spacek) flee home to pitch camp, fish, and dance awkwardly to the pop music of the day. But by virtue of their advanced ages (Kit is 25, and Holly 15) they represent a sort of worst-case scenario for the future Sam and/or Suzy might find themselves in.

    For lack of proper guidance, Kit has grown into a psychotic killer—their escape into the forest is preceded by Kit’s murder of Holly’s father (Warren Oates), and his body count will skyrocket in the weeks ahead—but there’s something eerily naive and borderline wistful to these misbegotten souls playing house. “Badlands is a story of lost children at large in a moral vacuum,” filmmaker Michael Almereyda writes in the essay accompanying the film’s Criterion Collection release, and the same might be said of life on New Penzance, a place that is, if not a vacuum, then at least a whirlpool of moral disorientation, as embodied by Suzy’s unfaithful mother, and emotional bewilderment, as embodied by Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton), who finds his previously certain worldview stymied by the story’s events.

    The Badlands Criterion release comes packaged with an episode of the TV program American Justice detailing the case of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate, the real-life fugitive lovers who inspired Badlands and so, by extension, share DNA with Moonrise Kingdom. Starkweather’s killing spree—which claimed 11 lives across Nebraska and Wyoming in late 1957 and early 1958—became something of a flashpoint in the American psyche. The nation was on edge as some among the emergent demographic of teenagers (the modern American conception of adolescence having functionally not existed prior to the economic and industrial boom of the 50s) took their newfound cultural cachet as permission for acts of criminality.

    “Something has gone wrong,” journalist Benjamin Fine wrote in his 1955 treatise 1,000,000 Delinquents. “Boys from eight to eleven years old, already turning towards delinquency, already filled with hatred and spite against a society that censures, but does not help, them.” This anxiety found purchase and personification in Starkweather and Fugate, two heartland kids who emblematized the potential for terror to emerge in the last place anyone might expect, and so represented a clear and present threat to the postwar domestic dream.

    Starkweather and Fugate established a new archetype in American narrative, two lovers on the run whose legend may have drafted off earlier cases like Bonnie and Clyde, but who replaced bank robbery with seeming nihilism. It’s this existential hollowness that Malick infused into his cinematic interpretation of the case—released at a remove of 15 years—and soon enough, Badlands would come to form its own kind of foundation for other stories, including True Romance (an overt pastiche that borrows Malick’s musical motif), and its sibling film, Natural Born Killers. But if these films interpret Starkweather, they serve as a refracted interpretation of an even earlier American legend: James Dean.

    Starkweather modeled his personal style and affect on Dean, specifically the star (then just over two years dead) as seen in Rebel Without a Cause. His sister would later recall the soon-to-be killer practicing Dean’s postures in the mirror. “Charlie almost felt that they were brothers,” Michael Newman wrote in his 1998 book, Waste Land: The Savage Odyssey of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate, “with a kind of psychic bond that reached beyond the grave.” It’s a comparison that Malick adopted for Badlands; “I’ll kiss your ass if he don’t look like James Dean,” one arresting officer marvels to another as they drive Kit away from the scene of his final crime. The resemblance isn’t merely—or even primarily—surface level. Kit embodies something about the collective unconscious spirit of Dean, one among a generation of “lost cats in love with themselves,” Dos Passos wrote in “The Sinister Adolescents,” who “look at themselves and see James Dean; the resentful hair, the deep eyes floating in lonesomeness, the bitter beat look, the scorn on the lip.”

    “All those parents who don’t understand their teenage children had better start understanding them right quick or all juvenile hell is likely to break loose.”

    In The Wes Anderson Collection, the director notes a resemblance between Moonrise Kingdom and Rebel Without a Cause, another story of alienated young people who carve out a secretive ersatz home for themselves, living a fantasy of peace and happiness on borrowed time. Jim (Dean), Judy (Natalie Wood), and Plato (Sal Mineo) are three more wounded children who feel abandoned by the world and its governing generation, and that confusion leads them to an endpoint of violent disillusionment. This was the iconography that took root in Dos Passos’ “shook-up generation.” As one tribute to Dean, published in the Daily Tar Heel of Chapel Hill, North Carolina just over a month after his death, read, “All those parents who don’t understand their teenage children had better start understanding them right quick or all juvenile hell is likely to break loose.”

    And break loose it did with Starkweather, who traced his own dysfunctions as far back as kindergarten. Recalling being mocked by classmates and chastised by teachers, he “builded up a hate that was as hard as iron,” he wrote from prison, breeding a desire for “revenge upon the world and its human race.” Though he acknowledged that this “wasn’t much of an excuse” for what he’d done, it’s meaningful that he was radicalized at such a young age. The child, as Wordsworth wrote, is father to the man, and nurturing a budding adult is a daily and essential responsibility. The future that Sam and Suzy have already begun carving out for themselves is of vital consequence, and the solution comes at the level of individual compassion rather than at the hand of Social Services, that single person who stands as synecdoche for an entire faceless and brutal institution.

    By 1965, a decade after the publication of 1,000,000 Delinquents, there was a clear sense of exhaustion in coverage of the juvenile delinquency problem. The judge in Cedar Falls, Iowa was cited as having said that lecturing juvenile delinquents “gives him a great feeling of righteousness, but it does very little if anything for the juvenile.” So what recourse might be available to prevent very troubled children from developing into sinister adolescents? Wes Anderson offers a fairly clear prescription, one that emerges less through narrative than through musical motif.

    Anderson bookends the film with selections from Benjamin Britten’s “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra.” In this 1961 recording, a child narrates Britten’s 1945 educational composition, which uses a theme by 17th-century composer Henry Purcell to illustrate what each instrument in an orchestra can contribute to the whole. Each instrument takes its turn playing in isolation as Anderson’s camera tracks each member of the Bishop family’s domestic detachment—parents and children silently coexisting, a spirit of ennui infusing the home.

    What recourse might be available to prevent very troubled children from developing into sinister adolescents?

    By the ending, however, once Sam has accepted the offer of foster parenthood from local policeman Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), preventing his separation from Suzy, Britten’s composition returns to reach its fruition: each previously solitary instrument is now joined in a complex harmony that achieves the theme’s full potential. The denizens of New Penzance have learned that living out their daily struggles in emotional solitude represents a thin and paltry life, and only by community union can anyone’s full potential be reached.

    The significance of Britten’s piece isn’t limited to this overt thematic resonance. “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra” represented the composer’s staunch belief that children should be treated with dignity—why shouldn’t they be capable of understanding complex musicology, Britten implicitly asked, so long as they’re spoken to on their level? Their inner workings are as worthy of respect as any adult’s, and meeting them with warmth and wit is the best way to draw out their ideal capabilities.

    To quote another musician, and another artist inspired by Starkweather, Bruce Springsteen concluded his 1982 record Nebraska with the song “Reason to Believe.” “Struck me kind of funny,” the Boss reflects at the conclusion of what amounts to a concept album spiritually adapting the Starkweather archetype (including a direct reference to the opening image of Badlands), “how at the end of every hard day, people find some reason to believe.” And that reason to believe, in Wes Anderson’s conception, is our own belief in one another, and the conviction that we’re each worthy of human sympathy, no matter how juvenile we may be.

    Ethan Warren
    Ethan Warren
    Ethan Warren is the author of The Cinema of Paul Thomas Anderson: American Apocrypha, coming April 2023 from Wallflower Books and Columbia University Press.

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