“What can you say about a 25 year-old girl who died?” Written by Erich Segal before being plaintively voiced by Ryan O’Neal, this presumably rhetorical question is the opening gambit of “Love Story,” the simple but phenomenally successful weeper in which a young couple’s relationship is prematurely halted when the girl contracts leukemia — a bummer at any stage of life, but particularly so when you’re young and in love and have Ali MacGraw’s very nice hair.
As it turned out, the film didn’t have an awful lot to say about the 25 year-old in question, beyond the indirect observations that love is sweet, death is sad and that neither one of those truths alters the other. Gus Van Sant’s new film “Restless,” meanwhile, asks the same question — just with a slightly lower number replacing the 25 — and, as laws of both algebra and Hollywood would have it, asks it to somewhat lower returns.
A delicate romance between two teen misfits — if by “delicate,” we mean “watery,” and by “misfits” we mean “curiously dressed waifs that even Stephenie Meyer might have excised for being too moonsome” — that makes mortality its meet-cute rather than its second-act complication, it’s a confoundingly glib and out-of-time work from a filmmaker with real form in delineating pre-20s alienation. If not Van Sant’s worst film (let us pause for the prosecutors of “Finding Forrester” and “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues” to state their cases), it’s certainly his most under-realized.
Newcomer Henry Hopper (son of Dennis, with whom he shares some facial expressions but little of the reckless energy) plays Enoch, a 18 year-old dropout living in a state of self-imposed social withdrawal ever since the death of his parents in a car crash; his natural response to this tragedy, movie psychology being what it is, is to frequent the funeral parties of strangers. At one of them, he meets fellow teen Annabel (Mia Wasikowska), a stock free spirit who hasn’t let a touch of terminal cancer put a stop to her exhausting winsomeness.
Upon discovering a mutual passion for Shakespeare, vintage clothing and obvious bird metaphors, they fall in love, each helping the other accept their unhappy lot, mostly through the healing power of montage: shot by Harris Savides in autumn-leaf tones and cashmere grays, badminton matches set to neutered singer-songwriter noodling are the order of the day. The characters’ largest and least welcome affectation, meanwhile, is their mutual imaginary friendship with WWII kamikaze pilot ghost Hiroshi — a device that’s both in questionable taste and wholly ungrounded in the film’s visual and symbolic design. (Unless I’m missing something — on Halloween night, Enoch runs into an old schoolmate in kamikaze gear. In the fickle world of teen fads, are fighter pilots the new vampires?)
With Annabel’s fate clearly irreversible from the outset, the film has a very short narrative distance to cover — which wouldn’t be a problem if first-time screenwriter Jason Lew (a theater-versed college buddy of executive producer Bryce Dallas Howard) were less interested in his protagonists’ accumulated surface-level quirks than in the network of relationships in this weirdly underpopulated film. (It’s telling that the film’s strongest moments come when it extends its gaze beyond the pair’s private universe: as Wasikowska’s older, effortfully composed sister, Schuyler Fisk is the film’s warmest, most authentic presence.)
However grim their circumstances, it’s hard to feel much of anything for characters this faint and context-free: Wasikowska is a fine actress, but can’t do much with dialogue as lumpy and obvious as, “The songbird sings a beautiful song… it’s just happy not be dead.”
Computers, cellphones and most other outward signs of 21st century living are conspicuously absent. The press notes confirm that’s part of a master plan to render characters “timeless,” little realizing that someone who admits to no generational connection, past or present, is likelier to be read as a cypher than as universally relatable. If, to return to Segal’s 1970 question, there isn’t much to say about these kids — deceased or otherwise — it’s because this insipid film hasn’t really met them either.
[Photo: Sony Pictures Classics]