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"Moonrise Kingdom" is Wes Anderson's best film since "The Royal Tenenbaums," which means it's one of the best films that is likely to come out of the year 2012.

There's a catch to that: The films Anderson makes are small and exquisite, not big and blowzy and populist. They're more like a post-surrealist box in an art gallery turned out by Joseph Cornell than a big, raw slab of Hollywood hoo-ha designed to cut across demographic divides with a cleaver.

Which is to say that Anderson films, even at their best, are guaranteed to leave large portions of the unsympathetic not only unmoved but peevish at their errant expenditures of time and money. And that's despite a star-filled cast who all, like Anderson's best audience, "get" what he's doing, and give him disciplined performances that are all jewel-like in their perfection.

That last is crucial. It marks so many of the truly great filmmakers. Frank Capra's great films, for instance, are all similarly dependent on actors who understand exactly what their director is doing and give him what he wants with inspirational precision.

It's a weird, almost Andersonian happenstance that two of the smartest and most distinctive filmmakers in America have the same last name: Wes Anderson and Paul Thomas Anderson. They were born approximately a year apart (Wes in 1969, P.T. in 1970) and their films are each part of a coherent, beautifully constructed insular world that captivates audiences with something outrageously new every time, whether it was Wes in "The Royal Tenenbaums," "The Darjeerling Limited" and now this, or P.T. in "Boogie Nights," "Magnolia," "Punch Drunk Love" and "There Will Be Blood."

Wes misfires far more often than P.T., who hasn't made a bad film yet or even come close. Wes' "Bottle Rocket" and "Rushmore" each have their partisans but, frankly, there are plenty of us Wes-ites who understand that the wacked-out filmmaker who creates such exclusive and intricate ironies can't help occasionally making a clunker as utterly junky as Wes' waterlogged and profoundly dippy "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou."

The bad Wes films are the price audiences need to pay for a little masterpiece as daft and, in its way, as weirdly touching as "Moonrise Kingdom."

It takes place in 1965 in the small island community of New Penzance. We follow the fortunes of two couples fighting to survive intact in the place's massive melancholy and mediocrity. One is the island's sad sheriff (Bruce Willis) who hasn't yet found room either in his hometown or his own personality for a very large and tender heart, and a female lawyer (Frances McDormand) aridly married to another lawyer (Bill Murray) and raising three children, including 12-year-old Suzy, whose soul already seems larger and lovelier than her two parents' combined (who address each other as "counselor").

The other couple is Suzy (Kara Hayward) and another 12-year-old on the island, Sam (Jared Gilman), a nerdy but ever-prepared member of a "Khaki Scout" troop whose leader (Edward Norton) doesn't seem to know the kid's an orphan living with foster parents when the two would-be lovers go missing. He's got his scout backpack and she has her suitcase and 45 rpm record player.

At the same time, the sheriff and the troop leader get a call from the boy's foster parents saying they don't want him anymore.

If you think the utter heartbreak of this is played up anywhere in this film -- even if only in the music cuing the audience how to react -- you've never seen a Wes Anderson film before.

But it's all that helps to give the kids' innocent trek through the woods and puppy love and pubescent simulations of "making out" the sweet and tender irony that it has. This movie comes from a raving, nerdly smartypants, but it's as tender a film about adolescent alienation as you're likely to see in 2012.

In our two couples, we watch those beyond hope and those who aren't.

Others in the large, remarkable cast include Tilda Swinton, color-coordinated in blue/purple and calling herself only "social services," Harvey Keitel as the island's grand scout poobah and Bob Balaban as the omniscient island historian who has a decent idea where the runaways are headed.

Crucial to all this, of course, are the kid actors, both of whom seem bundles of pre-teen vulnerability but with sufficient bravado and talent to get lost from a lost world and stay lost for a while.

I have no doubt that their sexless gropes and their undress -- they get down to their underwear and sleep in each other's arms -- will cause the self-righteous to grumble about the Hollywood perversion of it all, but the screen seldom gives us kids who seem as sweet and cluelessly innocent and profoundly touching as these two.

An authentic and flawless cinematic gem, exquisitely cut and mounted.

email: jsimon@buffnews.com

***

MOONRISE KINGDOM    

Review: 4 stars (Out of 4)    

STARRING: Bruce Willis, Frances McDormand, Bill Murray, Edward Norton    

DIRECTOR: Wes Anderson    

RUNNING TIME: 94 minutes    

RATING: PG-13 for language, smoking and sexual content.    

THE LOWDOWN: Two runaway 12-year-olds fall into puppy love and throw their tiny island community into a tizzy.