A FEW MINUTES into Gus Van Sant's Restless, a mortician confronts the film's pretty-boy lead Enoch Brae (newcomer Henry Hopper) about all the memorials he's been attending. "Either you're the unluckiest boy in the world," he says of the funeral crasher, "or an insensitive prankster." The same could be said of Van Sant, who's made a career of wiffleballing between audacious indie experimentation and predictable Hollywood pandering. His films so regularly confound and disappoint, it's hard to tell if he's a legitimate screw-up or just having fun chumping his fans.
Restless arrives three years after Van Sant's Milk biopic achieved mainstream success. Judging by the basic details, most thought the Portland-based filmmaker was returning to his art-house comfort zone. A troubled teen (Hopper), who attends funerals for people he doesn't know, meets a quirky kindred spirit in Annabel (Jane Eyre's Mia Wasikowska). Romance follows, but her terminal cancer puts a damper on young love. Also, the boy regularly pals around with the ghost of a WWII kamikaze pilot (Ryo Kase). Cue the cloudy skies and twee music.
As delightfully weird as Restless may sound, first-time screenwriter Jason Lew apparently learned about doomed teenage love not from Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho but from Nicholas Sparks novels. Ghost stories aside, Restless is a thoroughly average, aggressively normal girl-with-cancer story. Annabel wants to experience as much life as possible before she dies. Predictably, her passion for living eases Enoch's private pain. Wasikowska brings an enthralling honesty to her role, but it's not enough to pull Restless out of the doldrums. Whatever truth the writing possesses is too emotionally shallow.
Which is fine if, like the protagonists, you're in high school. Gus Van Sant is nearly 60. He should've learned some better tricks by now.