Wonders of lost youth

BY NOW, everyone who goes to movies knows pretty much whether they're going to like the next Wes Anderson film or not. Those dollhouse sets meticulously decorated with custom-made knick-knacks; the slightly stilted dialogue that seems to have been imported from a parallel universe; the characters who are emotionally unravelled but sartorially exact down to the last bobby-pin. Either it's all so peachy-keen quirksville it sets your teeth on edge, or you just love every hand-embroidered frame.

Moonrise Kingdom, which has its Australian premiere at the Melbourne International Film Festival next month, may be the best Anderson film yet, which will make zero difference to the teeth-gritters. For the rest of us, it's heaven.

Moonrise Kingdom is set in 1965 on a fictional New England island called New Penzance. Twelve-year-old Sam (Jared Gilman) is shuffled between foster parents and Scout camp, where his thick glasses and bookish affectations make him a rank outsider. Suzy (Kara Hayward) is a would-be sophisticate in Sunday-school flats and long white socks who listens to Francoise Hardy and dreams of escaping her warring parents (Anderson regular Bill Murray and the reliably great Frances McDormand, both striking a clear note of ironic despair).

Nobody else notices, but these two misfits are destined for each other. Armed with just a Scouting tent and a suitcase of books, they run away to somewhere altogether nicer. In pursuit are Sam's Scout troop, led by an ungainly Edward Norton, the monstrous Social Services (a character rather than an organisation, played by Tilda Swinton) and the melancholy local copper played - in a wonderfully unlikely bit of casting - by Bruce Willis.

''I wanted to make a movie set in the world of children and from a child's point of view,'' Anderson says. ''I had these two characters who were both so isolated when they meet, they just make a decision they are going to make a new life together. And they are very bold and determined about it.'' Elsewhere, Anderson has said he, too, fell in love when he was 12, but silently.

''It's a memory of an emotion, but kind of a memory of a fantasy as well,'' he told the Associated Press. ''Everything that happens in the story is what didn't happen to me.''

Sometimes Anderson feels the stories he writes already exist and he discovers rather than invents them.

Moonrise Kingdom's period setting, for example, arrived without explanation. ''I didn't have a real analytical reason for it, but I sort of figured out one as I went along. I think I wanted it to be in a sort of Norman Rockwell America that doesn't really exist any more,'' he says.

''The Scouting is a part of that. I wanted to feel we were in what was - or what we look back on as - a more innocent time. When these kids are 18, it's going to be such a different America.''

Anderson was a Scout for only about three weeks, he says, never learning to tie a knot. ''I didn't get along with all that.'' But he did once appear in the Benjamin Britten opera Noye's Fludde, the setting in which Sam first meets Suzy. Anderson, who was nine at the time, was an otter. ''My brother was an elk or a moose,'' he says. ''I really sort of set the movie to that music. It made a huge impression on me. Britten's drama and originality and also the religious aspect of it - I'm not religious at all, but I connect it to the culture of my childhood.''

One of Anderson's complications in life is that people tend to conflate his films with his person, so photographers are always trying to snap him in wing-back chairs drinking tea. No wonder, one might say; he seems to be entirely identified with all of them. Anderson was one of three brothers, just like the boys in The Darjeeling Limited. Their parents split when he was eight, becoming models for a succession of bitter couples and the imploding family in The Royal Tenenbaums.

Likewise, Moonrise Kingdom was to be a love story; his starting point was an image of two children dancing on a beach. ''But when I had the thing going, it became just as much about a troubled family, brothers and sisters, things I've had in lots of other movies. It's kind of something where I end up going without meaning to.'' This could almost be a backstory; Suzy's family might grow up to be the Darjeeling boys. ''Probably,'' he says. ''I think there is a degree to which the characters from a scene in one of these movies could walk into another movie.''

So it makes sense that Anderson should cite as an influence not just Francois Truffaut, whose films about children - The 400 Blows, Small Change - find an echo in Moonrise Kingdom, but filmmakers ostensibly worlds away from his choppy Americana, such as Bengali master Satyajit Ray. It is the fact that Ray sits so squarely within that distant world that Anderson says he admires.

''He is a great model of how to be a filmmaker,'' Anderson says. ''He made his own movies with his own collaborators, one after another, consistently. I relate him to [Ingmar] Bergman or [Pedro] Almodovar or the Coen brothers, people who just do their own thing consistently and build up this body of work that sits together. That's the kind of model that attracts me.'' Look forward, then, to plenty more Anderson films. You'll know them when you see them.

Moonrise Kingdom screens on August 3 and 7 as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival, August 2-19 (details at miff.com.au, or see the program in today's Age). It is released nationally on August 30.

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