There's an interesting movie struggling to get out from underneath the suffocating layers of self-conscious whimsy and morbid Harold and Maude affectations permeating Gus Van Sant's Restless. Toeing the line between edgy art-house quirkiness and Lifetime disease-of-the-week romance, this mawkish misfire works best when it sheds its dewy-eyed pretensions and lets real world emotions and reactions peek out for a moment. Unfortunately, that doesn't happen often enough.
Beautiful Enoch (Henry Hopper, son of Dennis) is a brooding, death-obsessed teen who crashes the funerals of children, commiserates with the ghost of a World War II kamikaze pilot (Ryo Kase), and casually befriends, then falls in love with Charles Darwin-loving Annabel, a terminally ill girl (Mia Wasikowska).
Perpetually dressed in retro vintage clothing, stalking graveyards and funerals, given to oddball interests and twee expressions of individuality, Van Sant's love-struck leads don't come close to registering as flesh-and-blood human beings. Worse, they're stranded in a dramatically inert storyline.
Still ... with his dreamy, tender (some might say precious) approach, the iconoclastic filmmaker comes surprisingly close to creating a delicate portrait of two loners falling into first-time love. Jason Lew's awkward and emotionally hollow script has an intriguing backbone — the decision of a young man traumatized by the death of his family to start a relationship with someone who is destined to die soon — but it's Van Sant's steady hand that provides the film's undercurrent of consolation and compassion.
It's not enough. Restless may have a few things working in its favor — Harris Savides' warm, lived-in cinematography, Mia Wasikowska's strong presence — but the balance tips toward quaint self-indulgence, teenage narcissism and amateur storytelling. Danny Elfman's painfully plucky score gives way to hushed emo ballads as Lew's script lurches from one disconnected scene to the next. And despite the ever-present specter of death, Annabel's cancer never feels authentic, serving more as a plot device than a real-world threat. In fact, except for a single seizure, Wasikowska may be experiencing the most pleasant and symptom-free brain tumor in all of history.
That Van Sant has a preoccupation with death should come as no surprise to anyone who has followed his career. With Restless, he may be attempting to shed some of the confrontational nihilism that's informed his recent work (Gerry, Last Days, Elephant, Paranoid Park, and even, to some small degree, Milk). But as life-affirming as this story about two characters struggling to hold onto a little happiness before the inevitable end of life might seem, it's hard to fathom why Van Sant would lend his considerable talents to a story so deliberately eccentric yet relentlessly derivative.
Opens Friday, Oct. 7, at the Landmark Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.