Moonrise Kingdom is the story of a boy and a girl, both social outcasts in slightly different ways, and the “village”, viz, the community, society and institutions; which surround them on a rocky New England island in the early 1960s. This (somewhat literal) village of New Penzance in which they are raised has, to all appearances, one actual physical church, St. Jack’s.

Though the physical church itself is constructed in the spare white-painted wooden-board style associated with Puritanism in its multitude of Protestant variants, the persons associated with the administration of St. Jack’s bear the trappings of Catholicism, or perhaps Episcopalianism: there is a priest in a black pants suit and Roman collar, nuns recognizable as such in white habits, and altar boys in traditional white surplices over black cassocks.

St. Jack's Church is also the setting for the showdown between Social Services, the scouts, Sam Shatsky, and the sheriff.

It is to be noted that neither Anglicans nor Roman Catholics recognize a “Saint Jack”, as such, though “Jack is another name for John, and there is a Saint John”.
Though religion as such is not openly discussed in the film, it has a subtle role in community life and in the private and public morality of the characters. When preteens Suzy Bishop and Sam Shatsky hatch a plot to run away together, it is disclosed when their correspondence leading up to their flight is portrayed, that they both have had interpersonal conflicts with the people around them, at home and at school, and they are both regarded as “emotionally disturbed”. Steve lost his parents in a fire, lives with a foster family, and is a bright, wimpy, sensitive kid who draws and paints and has even advanced to nudes at an early age. The former is a rationale for his overt and recognized emotional problems, and the latter an invitation to bullying, both by his cohorts at the foster home, and the fellow scouts in the scout troop from which he runs away. Given his last name, “Shatsky”, dark hair, and glasses, though it is not overtly stated in the movie, it is likely that he is the only Jew for miles, perhaps adding to his loneliness, societal stigmatization, and peoples’ perception of him as an “Other”.
Suzy lives with her biological family, but that doesn’t mean she fits in. Her parents and much younger brothers have retreated to their own worlds in work, an affair, and board games, respectively; what does that leave her but her own retreat into fantasy in the form of un-returned library books with otherworldly heroines and pursuing what starts as friendship but becomes a first romance with a peer regarded as undesirable by conventional wisdom.
While Sam may have no such comforts, Suzy also “belongs”, at least nominally, to the mainstream religion, at St. Jack’s; it is in fact there that Sam meets her, while she is performing the part of the raven in the morality play being given at the church, “Noye’s Fludde’, a 1957 opera by Benjamin Britten based upon an earlier 15th century mystery play, on the subject of Noah’s Ark and the great Flood. This is somewhat ambitious and artistically sophisticated material for a small and presumably poor parish in the back of beyond. It is also Anglican in its origins.

Suzy also attends what is ostensibly a Catholic school, which is shown in flashback footage of her correspondence with Sam, when in one instance, she explains that she got suspended from school for having gotten into a fight with Molly, a girl who sits behind her in class.

In the scene, all the girls, and there are only girls, it being a single-sex classroom, wear blue plaid jumpers, except for Suzy. Perhaps for dramatic reasons alone, the plaid on her jumper is interwoven with red. Neither the movie nor the character explain how the fight started or what mitigating circumstances there may have been, the other girls merely say that Suzy tends to “go berserk”. The classroom, and indeed the school, are mere background for the character, and the remote and hierarchical nature of the order of things in the school, here serving as a microcosm of the larger society in which she lives, were summed up in the statement, “the principal is against me”.
Sam and Suzy, having successfully eluded the authority figures in their respective lives long enough to hike some distance away, make camp, and catch dinner, engage in their first (and to some other adult reviewers, creepy and controversial) attempts at sexuality. After both had stripped down to their underwear, and have their outer clothes drying on a clothesline, Sam sketched a picture for which Suzy posed in bra and panties, accompanied by her kitten. Following that, they embraced and touched each other without taking off their underwear. Only heavy petting ensued, though things looked worse than they were when fully dressed adults and scouts found them en dishabille at their campsite.
When the two manage to escape again after having been caught and an attempt made to forcibly return them to society, they get the idea that they should be married (a very traditional Catholic way of handling the circumstances in which they find themselves, though not one mainstream American society would approve). It is almost without question that neither the State nor organized religion (portrayed here as St. Jack’s) would marry them, therefore they seek out dubious clergy from a rival scout troop (this being a metaphor for the spiritual seeking and alternative religions explored by many people in the 1960s and after) to give their consciences the comfort of clergy, and their union the blessing of religion. (Don’t worry folks, the bastardized marriage ceremony which takes place has no legal standing with the State and almost certainly no standing with St. Jack’s.)
When a real-life storm which parallels Noah’s flood in seeming magnitude and ferocity threatens the inhabitants of the island, the physical church building of St. Jack’s is the secular community’s designated emergency shelter, being equipped with canned foods, coffee urns, and more.
St. Jack's Church as emergency shelter in Moonrise Kingdom

Though the physical conditions are seen to become more threatening, the storm becoming visibly worse, the young lovers leave the security of St. Jacks, so determined are they to be together, that they risk death together. It is only last minute determination, heroism, and compromise on the part of the adult world making it possible for them to both enjoy improved living situations and to see each other licitly, that enables their rescue to proceed as the high winds which accompany the stinging rains blow the steeple off the church and nearly take them with it.

Though there is only Catholicism in the most overt sense, the physical church, later conspicuously damaged, but congregation, clergy, and religious surviving; there are Catholic values hidden within the narrative. Though the young lovers go outside the boundaries of the legitimate church to try to get married, nevertheless, it is marriage and the responsibility to one another it implies, that they seek out. They did not truly desire suicide, though, through their extreme emotionalism and dramatic gestures, they got themselves into a dangerous situation that could have effectively led to it.

And finally, most significantly, the “disturbed” girl calls out her mother for having an affair; this is a warning bell to all parents who think they can get away with doing such things when they have children who are almost old enough to figure out what is going on and who would, if not exposed for the hypocrites they were, otherwise arrogate to themselves moral authority to dictate over their childrens’ sexual behavior when they are hardly shining examples of rectitude in this department themselves. To Suzy’s mother’s credit and moral redemption according to religious values, she ends the affair she has been having with the sheriff with the rationale of presenting a better example to her children, particularly her daughter.

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3 Responses to “Moonrise Kingdom”

  1. sara

    04. Jan, 2014

    Wooowww guys you got his last name in this so wrong. First of all Sam Shatsky is my brother’s name, not the character’s name. Also this movie has nothing to do with Catholicism, it’s a coming of age movie. Nothing was said about the main character, Sam, being a Jew. Nothing was even vaguely religious in this movie…

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  2. Anne Marie

    03. Oct, 2015

    Interesting article, but I’d like to point out that “St. Jack’s” from the movie is, in real life, Trinity EPISCOPAL Church, in Newport, Rhode Island. Episcopal priests wear collars, and our acolytes vest in cassock and surplice. There is nothing Roman Catholic about the film.

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    • Laura

      03. Jan, 2016

      Error on my part. Anglicans have all of the trappings of Catholicism, but none of the transubstantiation…

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