A flimsy teenage romance with dashes of bittersweet inspiration, Gus Van Sant's "Restless" is little more than a whimsical exercise. Neither unwatchable nor particularly memorable, it mainly succeeds as a showcase for Van Sant's younger collaborators. The director's first feature since 2008's "Milk" is produced by Bryce Dallas Howard and adapted from a screenplay by her old college buddy Jason Lew. Its two leads, Henry Hopper and Mia Wasikowska--both in their early twenties--give the movie its defining traits more than Van Sant, whose main role involves keeping this slight effort intact.
But even if it never falls apart, "Restless" doesn't really go anywhere. In the opening minutes, Van Sant introduces Enoch (Hopper), the lone survivor of a car crash that killed both his parents. He now spends his days visiting funerals for people he doesn't know and chatting up the ghost of a Japanese Kamikaze fighter pilot (Ryo Kase). Their relationship suggests a vaguely morbid take on the premise of "Calvin and Hobbes," but "Restless" has less to say about the power of imagination than that immortal comic strip.
Despite the dark context, Van Sant maintains a playful tone, thanks to Danny Elfman's upbeat soundtrack and the effervescent feel of the ensuing plot. Saved from reprimand from a funeral home manager by the equally spirited Annabel (Wasikowska), Enoch quickly takes a liking to her, only to learn that she's dying of a terminal illness. The two quickly fall for each other, finding kinship in their mutual ability to shrug about the cruel fate their lives have brought them.
Both Hopper and Wasikowska invest in the nuances of these characters, yielding a fantastic chemistry that makes their scenes together enjoyable. There's a nice dimension of sarcasm to their outlooks, which the actors demonstrate best in a bit of playacting when Enoch and Annabel pretend they're older characters living out a romantic tragedy. However, their shared innocence is framed with flat, TV-ready direction that eventually grows thin. From start to finish, it's a mostly passive affair, the sort of rudimentary two-hander we've seen countless times before. Van Sant is capable of much deeper portraits of isolated youth, but in this case he lets the rudimentary script simply run its course.
Enoch's sad backstory and Annabel's grave medical prognosis strain credibility because the screenplay never gives their conundrums a real sense of legitimacy. (The bleakest events take place off-screen.) Enoch's relationship with his supposed imaginary friend is also troublesome. He's given enough traits to become a fully developed character, and yet doesn't fit with the rest of storyline. It's like Van Sant saw the potential for taking a page from the "Juno" playbook, focusing on cynical wisecrackers and letting their inherent appeal lead the way, but he forgot to connect the dots. Enoch's frustrations are sincere but directionless. "I wish I could do something more," he says. "Something better." By its unremarkable conclusion, "Restless" leaves you thinking the same thing.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Already set for U.S. distribution with Sony Pictures Classics, "Restless" should perform decently in limited release on the basis of its chic young cast and Van Sant's art-house cred.
criticWIRE grade: B