In spite of its young lovers being haunted by the spectre of death (figuratively, not literally; this isn't a teen horror flick), Restless, the new film by director Gus Van Sant, is more affected than affecting. And I'd suggest that has more to do with the efforts of the first time screenwriter, Jason Lew, than the veteran director.
Enoch Brae (Henry Hopper, son of Dennis) and Annabel Cotton (Mia Wasikowska) are teens so laden with ticks and quirks they can only be the product of a young writer throwing everything he's got at his first big shot at the movies (the film is co-produced by Lew's former university classmate, Bryce Dallas Howard).
Mourning the death of his parents, Enoch attends the funerals of strangers. At first it seems disrespectful, but the boy with the scarecrow-like features is just seeking closure having missed his parents' funeral; he was in a coma following the car accident which claimed their lives. Enoch also has an imaginary friend and confidant, Hiroshi Takahashi (Ryo Kase), the ghost of a Japanese kamikaze pilot and very much a first time writer's conceit (props to Kase for making Hiroshi amusingly believable).
Enoch meets Annabel at a funeral for a young boy, whom she knew, who died of cancer. It's the first hint that the slim girl with the baggy clothes and pixie-cut hair (Hiroshi doesn't understand why she dresses like a boy) may not be well. And she's not. Annabel has a type of brain cancer and her latest diagnosis has given her just three months to live.
Still, the bruised Enoch falls for the the girl who likes to sketch, read books about birds and lists Charles Darwin as one of her heroes (which is odd given his 'survival of the fittest' theories). And so ensues a romance which for some may recall Love Story - that 1970 weepie starring Ryan O'Neal and Ali MacGraw as young college lovers also facing a death sentence (also hers) - and can presumably only end one way.
But I didn't even come close to shedding a tear. As sweet and low-key charming as Enoch and Annabel are, theirs is not a grand or great passion. Yes the death of youth and beauty is a tragedy but I didn't get any sense of that in Restless. And Hopper, an odd screen presence but then I guess his dad was too, and Wasikowska, who impresses with each new and varied role, just couldn't break through my defences.
Perhaps that also had something to so with Van Sant's restraint. Deliberately avoiding the cliche of a swelling orchestra, the soundtrack of Restless is full of wispy and raspy voices over guitar and thankfully void of emotionally manipulative music.
An old hand like Van Sant knows that tears should be earnt (see his brilliant 2008 film, Milk), a lesson a young writer like Jason Lew would do well to heed.