The words of The Clown's Prayer ("As I stumble through this life, help me to create more laughter than tears, dispense more cheer than gloom, spread more cheer than despair") are very apt for the work of director Wes Anderson (The Royal Tenenbaums, Rushmore). Here's a man who deals with heavy subjects – mortality, break-ups, loneliness, infidelity, among others – but wraps them up in such wry and quirky scripts that you feel better about the world by the end of his movies. And so it is with Moonrise Kingdom, a coming of age story set on a New England island in 1965.

Our hero is Khaki Scout Sam Shakusky (Gilman, looking for all the world like a miniature frontman for an indie band), an orphan who has neglected to tell his scouting superiors that his parents have died and who uses the annual summer camp to go AWOL. Sam has decided to run away into the wild with local girl Suzy Bishop (Hayward), the short fuse daughter of lawyers (Murray and McDormand) whom he met while camping the previous year and has been corresponding with ever since.

Their plan is a little muddled – it's a small enough island – but their provisions are extensive – cat food for Suzy's kitten, a record player, the new Francoise Hardy album, hot dogs, mustard, library books, etc, etc, etc. On the duo's trail are a hangdog police chief (Willis), the chain-smoking leader (Norton) of Sam's scout troop and, of course, Suzy's parents who, it seems, are on the home stretch of a bad marriage. And hanging over all of them is the mother of all storms...

Fans of Anderson's other live action films and the kids who arrived at his work via his animated version of Roald Dahl's Fantastic Mr Fox will find that plenty shines in this Moonrise Kingdom. It's a stronger Anderson film than, say, The Life Aquatic... but not worthy of the same adulation as The Royal Tenenbaums or Rushmore.

Once again, Anderson is pre-occupied with families – biological and otherwise – and, as in previous films, questions how much people really grow up. Ironically, the best work here is done by his two youngest stars, Gilman and Hayward, whose scenes have the most heart. When it comes to the duo's adult co-stars, the big names' characters and stories aren't as developed as they could have been, and in the case of longtime Anderson collaborator Murray, it's baffling as to why he has such little screen time. Remember: no day in this life was ever wasted watching more of Bill Murray in a cinema.

With the gorgeous visuals (split-screen phone calls, a church production of Noah's story that would make David Lean jealous), enchanting music (Benjamin Britten, Hank Williams), kooky humour and fine lines ("Your mission is to find him, not hurt him," Norton's character tells his heavily-armed scouts), Moonrise Kingdom easily warranted an extra half-hour running time, and the feeling also persists that it would make a great book if Anderson ever found the time to write it. As with his other movies, there are messages to take away and perhaps the most liberating one is this: "It's been proven by history all mankind makes mistakes." Make peace with that when you're on your own summer adventure, however modest it may be.

Harry Guerin