Even after it opened this year’s Cannes Film Festival to widely adoring reviews, even after it turned into the sleeper hit of the summer, even after friends assured me that this one was different—not cloyingly precious like Rushmore or The Royal Tenenbaums, not smugly self-satisfied like The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, not airless and overdesigned like The Darjeeling Limited or Fantastic Mr. Fox—I had a hard time bringing myself to see Moonrise Kingdom. I just didn’t believe that Wes Anderson was capable of making a movie that mattered. 

The Houston-born, University of Texas–educated director’s strongest feature, for me, remained his very first: Bottle Rocket (1996), a fluky caper comedy with unexpected undercurrents of melancholy, co-written with his onetime college roommate Owen Wilson. But Anderson’s early promise devolved into sterile affectation—a vision of the world as an elaborate dollhouse, populated not by characters but by ambulant figurines. Rushmore (1998) admittedly had a heart, perhaps because its story of a misfit prep school kid (Jason Schwartzman) was inspired by personal experience. (Anderson attended St. John’s School, in Houston, in the eighties.) Unfortunately, the visual style he developed for that film—wide-angle shots with the characters centered perfectly in the frame; hyper-detailed, self-consciously artificial sets; a seventies-era Tupperware color scheme—soon became his singular preoccupation, to the point where he shut down any possibility of genuine emotion. Working with a semi-regular stable of performers, among them Schwartzman, Owen and Luke Wilson, Anjelica Huston, and Bill Murray, he conjured up arch, sealed-off efforts like The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), The Life Aquatic (2004), and The Darjeeling Limited (2007), movies in which the director and actors are much too busy amusing one another to bother connecting with an audience. (Little wonder these works were embraced by the Austin-Brooklyn-Portland hipster set—they flatter those who consider themselves a little too refined and delicate for the coarseness of the real world.) With Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)—a fussy, stop-motion animated adaptation of the Roald Dahl children’s book, featuring George Clooney as the voice of a nattily attired, motorcycle-with-sidecar-riding fox—he ventured into a realm most directors don’t reach until their dotage: self-parody. 

Perhaps my rush to judgment was a bit too hasty. Having now seen Moonrise Kingdom twice, each time shocked by how much fun I was having, I take it all back. Or at least some of it. It turns out that Anderson might yet be capable of greatness. Set in 1965 on the fictional New Penzance Island, located off the coast of New England, the film—which has just been released on DVD—follows a bespectacled orphan named Sam (Jared Gilman) and a modishly dressed girl with raccoon eyeliner named Suzy (Kara Hayward) who fall in love and decide to run away together. Nearly everything that I previously found grating about Anderson’s work struck me this time as exquisitely well judged. The painstakingly worked-out images enhance the melancholy mood rather than distract from it. The characters are real and lovable as opposed to contrived eccentrics. Most significantly, Anderson seizes on a genuine subject—the struggles of adolescents to define themselves in opposition to soul-crushing authority—and doesn’t undermine it with wall-to-wall irony (as he did in Rushmore, which covered similar terrain). He’s a likely contender for a best-original-screenplay Oscar (he co-wrote the script with Roman Coppola, with whom he also collaborated on The Darjeeling Limited), but the prize he may really deserve is Most Improved. 

Why did he get it right this time? Anderson’s previous works were usually set in broadly exaggerated portraits of actual places: New York City in The Royal Tenenbaums; India in The Darjeeling Limited; even the English countryside in Fantastic Mr. Fox. With his immaculate production design and fetish for oddball detail, Anderson bled the messiness out of these spectacularly messy locales—an approach that made everything seem like a meaningless goof. Moonrise Kingdom does just the opposite by almost entirely dispensing with reality: the film unfolds in a storybook land where boys attending a “Khaki Scout” camp build tree houses high into the sky, where children perform in ornate productions of Benjamin Britten operas, and where a gray-bearded narrator (Bob Balaban) periodically inserts himself into the proceedings and warns us of an impending storm. Instead of trying to awkwardly retrofit his childlike vision onto the adult world, Anderson explores turbulent adult emotions as experienced by young characters. One gets the sense that all the whimsy for whimsy’s sake he has indulged in over the years was really his attempt to tap into the essence of classic fairy tales, with their fantastical manifestations of childhood terrors.

By a similar measure, Anderson never seemed to understand real people, or the actors who might evoke them on the screen. His characters could be very funny (think of Gene Hackman’s Royal Tenenbaum perpetually introducing Gwyneth Paltrow’s character as “my adopted daughter, Margot Tenenbaum”), but the central joke—adults whose deadpan manner makes them seem like children—wore thin. In Moonrise Kingdom, on the other hand, he gives us kids putting on grown-up airs, and the result is subtle and moving. Sam and Suzy’s quirks—he paints seminude watercolor portraits, she carries stolen library books in a mustard-yellow valise—aren’t annoying contrivances so much as the desperate expressions of their need to get the adult world to take them seriously. With the big-name actors relegated to supporting parts, Gilman and Hayward get to convey a swooning ardor that complicates Anderson’s innate drollery. There may be a distinct evolution at work here, as if Anderson needed to trust that he could control everything in his films before he gained the courage to allow some unpredictability and raw feeling into the mix. 

Watching Moonrise Kingdom, I wondered if Anderson is one of those artists—not unlike François Truffaut or Gus Van Sant—who is at his best exploring the darker aspects of adolescence and who might be better off casting aside the adult world altogether. Still, it would be nice to see him challenge himself with, say, a straight-ahead drama that would force him to dispense with the crutch of cleverness; if he’s ever going to make a masterpiece, he can’t remain faintly embarrassed by his own humanity. Anderson might also try directing someone else’s screenplay—something to force himself out of his hermetic world. Even in Moonrise Kingdom, he occasionally slips into old, irksome habits: the loopy props, the pointless sight gags, the Hollywood stars who turn up randomly (what, exactly, is Harvey Keitel doing in this movie?). And, indeed, to judge by the cutesy-sounding title (The Grand Budapest Hotel) and the rumored A-list cast (Johnny Depp, Jude Law, Owen Wilson) of his next film, he may end up taking two steps back after this major step forward. 

But for now, Anderson has made clear that he has more range and passion than he’s let on. Here’s betting it won’t take another sixteen years before he delivers something utterly unexpected again.