Maybe a death-obsessed teen falling for a charming, terminally-ill beauty isn't yours, or really anybody's idea of an uplifting romance, but don't tell that to Gus Van Sant.
The director is more than happy to catch us off guard with "Restless," a dreamy and wistful look at love and death through the eyes of a pair of off-kilter, star-crossed lovers.
Our moody Romeo is Enoch Brae, played by Henry Hopper, the teenage son of the late Dennis Hopper.
Both of Enoch's parents were killed in a car crash that nearly took his own life. Now living with his aunt, Enoch is quite literally haunted. His only friend is the ghost of a Japanese kamikaze pilot named Hiroshi (Ryo Kase) and the two spend their days playing Battleship and throwing rocks at passing trains.
Enoch spends most of the rest of his time crashing funerals and being generally moody until at one funeral he meets the spritely Annabel Cotton (Mia Wasikowska).
Annabel sees a light in Enoch that goes unnoticed by the rest of the living world and the two embark on a budding romance.
We quickly learn that Annabel has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, news that barely even seems to faze Enoch.
The two begin their courtship against a backdrop of a suburban autumn and they both discover that they while they may be a little too weird for the rest of the world; they are the perfect kind of weird for each other.
Van Sant may be best known for directing Oscar bait like "Good Will Hunting" and "Milk," but he's spent a lot of his career making bold little independent movies (with varying degrees of success) that border on the avant-garde.
I mean the guy made a movie that was basically two hours of Matt Damon and Casey Affleck walking through the desert ("Gerry"), so if that doesn't count as art-for-art's-sake I don't know what does.
With "Restless," Van Sant seems to be aiming for somewhere in between the art house and the cineplex by delivering a movie that is as heartwarming as it is strange.
Of course, it doesn't hurt that he gets a lot of help from his young leads. Wasikowska has more than proven her acting chops with head-turning performances in "Alice in Wonderland," "The Kids Are All Right" and "Jane Eyre."
The sunniness and optimism she brings to Annabel never feels forced, even when she's staring down the barrel of her own mortality. It is easy see how she could bring out the best in even the gloomiest of Gus's like Enoch.
Hopper is equally impressive in his acting debut. He could have easily played Enoch as flat and one-note, but he instead shows a surprising amount of range, including a wicked sense of humor that perpetually boils beneath the character's drab exterior.
While he doesn't possess his father's manic energy, Hopper does have enough of his old man's intensity to convincingly command a scene. We have not seen the last of Mr. Henry Hopper.
While it would be easy to deem "Restless" as a romantic comedy for the cynics and the outsiders, I think that places too much of a limit on its appeal. While it certainly isn't a movie for everybody, for those who don't mind their sweetness spiked with a dab of sour, it is the best love story you'll see on the big screen all year.
"Restless" is rated PG-13 for thematic material and brief sensuality.
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