Van Sant’s latest ‘Restless’ examines painfully hip teenage love affair

Sony Pictures Classics/Courtesy/File

In the first shot of “Restless,” Enoch is drawing his own chalk outline, tracing his body on the pavement. We learn all we need to know about this painfully hip, fun-hating guy right here. Enoch is obsessed with death, and himself.

Played by newcomer Henry Hopper, he is a young man without purpose. He has lost both his parents in an automobile accident and has dropped out of high school. It seems Enoch has seen “Harold and Maude” too many times because he attends funerals of people he never knew. Enter Annabel (Mia Wasikowska), the requisite Manic Pixie Dream Girl of the proceedings, who shares his morbid fascination with strange cadavers. She must be a free-spirit because she loves droopy hats and funky prints. All too early, “Restless” reeks of kitsch, the stuff of a rotting funereal bouquet.

Enoch not only sees dead people in coffins, he really sees dead people. The ghost of a Japanese kamikaze fighter pilot brings board games and platitudes to Enoch in his lonesome. But Enoch is freed from his self-loathing shell when he falls in love with Annabel, who has terminal brain cancer. So together she and Enoch go about living life as it should be lived: laying in the road, dressing in vintage garb, undressing each other in a backwoods cabin, etc.

Enoch and Annabel are both restless (!!!) spirits who haunt places of death. While most budding young couples might catch dinner and a movie, these two date in wakes, morgues and cemeteries.

Considering Van Sant’s breadth of bold films about young people and their ontological queries — “Gerry,” “Elephant,” “My Own Private Idaho” — it’s a shame that “Restless” has so little going for it.

Van Sant loves a gelid, northwestern landscape, so visually the film gets the gauzy treatment of a corpse. It has that fuzzy, out-of-focus look seen in a Polaroid (R.I.P.). But here it recalls those iPhone Instagram pictures, reminiscent of another epoch but still affected. The soundtrack is incessant. Expect the warbles of Iron and Wine and its ilk of dejected strummers made fashionable by “Garden State.” This movie just won’t lie still.

Surely, the young actors are competent and capable. We know Wasikowska as the whippersnapper who transcends time, from “Jane Eyre” (2011) to “The Kids Are All Right” (2010). As Annabel, she is charming and emotive. With a boy’s haircut and cloudy skin, she is a dead ringer for Rosemary Woodhouse at her worst. Her opposite Hopper is a pallid dreamboat, with the tousled hair and boudoir eyes. Fit him some fangs and you’ve got a bloodsucking heartthrob du jour. Hence “Restless” seems nothing more than sickly-looking, malnourished people in love — but that’s supposed to be beautiful, right?

The film has a solid but brutally underused supporting cast: Jane Adams as Enoch’s panicky aunt, Schulyer Fisk as Annabel’s devoted sister and Chin Han as a calm oncology doctor. But that bubblegum love, a soppy blend of hormones and mixed emotions, is center stage in “Restless.” The ensemble is sent to the wings.

Three years ago, Van Sant was the toast of the town, riding on the heels of “Milk” and “Paranoid Park,” two expertly crafted films that displayed his enormous range and dealt with quintessential Van Santian themes like alienation and otherness. “Restless” does not achieve that profundity of vision nor does it want to. In truth, Van Sant excels in portraying brooding men in love rather than pale teenagers in love. We look to him for him the former because we can get the latter anywhere else. But let’s forgive the man. A few years down the line, we’ll all forget “Restless” ever happened.

Ryan Lattanzio is the lead film critic.