In Gus Van Sant's latest film of young melancholy, the bright teenager Annabel Cotton (Mia Wasikowska) shows her new friend and budding love Enoch Brae (Henry Hopper) her simple sketches of bugs and proudly declares herself a naturalist.
In more than a dozen films over 25 years, Van Sant has been making the same statement. His films, often set in his hometown of Portland, Ore., are beautifully textured, consistently atmospheric and artfully framed with the lightest of touches.
He has grown a fondness for long tracking shots, but in "Restless," his camera mainly stays closer, in distance and emotion, to its subjects: principally Enoch, adrift after the deaths of his parents in a car accident, and Annabel, who has three months to live before inoperable cancer kills her.
"Restless," earnest and eccentric, is on the sentimental side of Van Sant's filmography, to be filled alongside 2000's "Finding Forrester." It's a story of innocence greeting death, and making it a plaything.
Van Sant has always been the cinematic equivalent of an Elliott Smith song: gorgeous, morbid and heavy on the bangs. He has a knack for pretty, young, shaggy things and his latest find, Hopper (the son of Dennis Hopper, making his film debut), is no exception.
Enoch is first glimpsed drawing a chalk outline of himself on the pavement, somewhere around Portland in the fall. After the death of his parents, he has dropped out of high school and now spends his time crashing funerals, intrigued by death's myriad ways.
Annabel spots him as a fraud at a funeral she's attending sincerely. His mistake? Wearing formal, black garb to a laid-back memorial service.
Enoch has more or less given up, and generally just slumps around with snotty sarcasm. He engages in long scenes, playing Battleship and tossing stones, with a sort of ghost or imaginary best friend, a former kamikaze pilot named Hiroshima (Ryo Kase).
Annabel, on the other hand, has no cynicism, despite her condition. She's almost gratingly cheerful, and upon hearing her veritable death sentence, she reasons that three months is a lot of a time, relatively speaking to an insect.
She and Enoch become fast friends, bound together by a plain-spoken honesty about death. They try to disarm its power however they can. They playfully converse with Enoch's parents' gravestone (a scene scored with a nod to Terrence Malick's "Badlands"). They mockingly practice their tone in cliché expressions like, "I'm so sorry for your loss." Sneaking into a morgue, they conjure stories behind each chamber's contents, like young lovers imagining shapes in clouds.
At its worst, "Restless" is trite adolescence and cloying quirk, a pretty picture of young, pretty death, outfitted handsomely in autumn scarfs and cloche hats. It certainly doesn't have the spark of "Harold and Maude."
The inevitability of death makes the tension for a number of Van Sant's films, like "Milk" and "Elephant," both of which build toward an expected tragedy. "Restless" never summons the power of those films, and instead merely approaches poignancy.
Hopper, who handles humor well and has something of his father's roguishness, and Wasikowska, the fine young actress of "Jane Eyre" and "In Treatment," are well matched. They give the alternatively smart and cringe-inducing screenplay by Jason Lew (a college classmate of producer Bryce Dallas Howard) a reasonable degree of believability and genuine affection.
Nevertheless, the material isn't up to Van Sant's abilities, and the impression of "Restless" is of a filmmaker playing with familiar themes and searching for an adequate vessel. The title, perhaps, applies to him.
"Restless," a Sony Pictures Classics release, is rated PG-13 for thematic elements and brief sensuality. Running time: 95 minutes. Two stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:
G — General audiences. All ages admitted.
PG — Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
PG-13 — Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.
R — Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
NC-17 — No one under 17 admitted.