It's a good thing the sun rarely shines in Portland, Ore., the mist-shrouded setting of Gus Van Sant's teen-centric tale of love and death. If illuminating dawns and dusks had basked Mia Wasikowska and Henry Hopper in a rosy glow, the mopey cuteness of Restless would have been too much to bear.
As it is, this love story - about a girl with brain cancer and a boy who crashes the funerals of strangers - comes dangerously close to sap. Sporting vintage wardrobes and wan looks of poetic doom (occasionally leavened by Wasikowska's killer smile), the couple meet cute and then fall into various walking, talking and bus-riding scenarios that involve invocations of Charles Darwin (her hero) and kamikaze pilots (his imaginary friend, Hiroshi).
Wasikowska's Annabel Cotton is on her way out, but she's handling the tumor in her head with grace and good cheer - no tragic figure, she. Her older sister (a very good Schuyler Fisk) frets enough for both of them.
Annabel first spies Hopper's Enoch Brae at a memorial service (of course). He's a wandering cloud of melancholy: His parents died in a car crash, and he now lives with his aunt (Jane Adams), whom he blames for their death. He comes and goes, dressed like a character from an Edgar Allan Poe book, and every now and then Hiroshi (Ryo Kase) materializes to discuss honor, and sacrifice, and dating tips.
Bryce Dallas Howard has a producer credit on Restless, and that's because the screenplay comes from a former New York University classmate of the actress, Jason Lew. In its episodic bits of quirk and whimsy, and its romantic morbidity, it's a project that smacks of film school - you can practically follow the cookie crumbs of Wes Anderson and Harold and Maude and the French New Wave.
Hopper, the son of the late actor Dennis Hopper, has presence, certainly, but it's impossible to gauge his talent, given the material he's working with here - beyond noting that he can well up with tears and kick at the ground with the best of them. Wasikowska has already proved herself: The Kids Are All Right, Jane Eyre - she's on her way to great things, and Restless is just a curious bump in the road. The actress keeps her dignity, at least.
Van Sant has been making movies about sensitive and troubled kids forever now (watching Hopper, it's impossible not to think of River Phoenix in Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho), but this one feels less emotionally truthful, less grounded in real angst, than anything he's done before.