After straying into biopic territory with Milk, Gus Van Sant returns to familiar turf, blending two pet themes – teenagers and death. This modest, subdued effort is nevertheless more accessible than his other recent studies of adolescent angst (Elephant, Paranoid Park). Much of this is due to the engaging presence of Mia Wasikowska, starring as Annabel, a terminally ill cancer patient who befriends the maudlin Enoch (Henry Hopper), an orphan fond of attending funerals for people he doesn’t know.
Gradually falling in love, Enoch and Annabel prove inseparable, acting out mock-death scenes and squeezing every drop from her remaining days. It’s a mix of Harold And Maude and Terms Of Endearment, with a bit of Ghost thrown in. Turns out Enoch has an imaginary friend, a kamikaze pilot named Hiroshi (Ryo Kase) who, as visitors from the spirit world go, is even friendlier than Casper.
It all adds up to an ultra-quirky, rambling meditation on life, the afterlife and that painful bit in between. Van Sant has assembled some quality collaborators, including composer Danny Elfman and regular DoP Harris Savides (capturing the rural Oregon locations in a dreamy haze). Indeed, with the photogenic leads, death has never looked lovelier.
A closely cropped Wasikowska injects grace and gravitas while Hopper (in his first major role) does more than just physically remind us of late dad Dennis (to whom the film is dedicated). There’s also an all-toobrief turn from the oft-underused Jane Adams (Hung) as Enoch’s strict aunt. The result, while hardly vintage Van Sant, has a messy charm of its own.
Not keen on kook? Get ready to fidget. But those up for a sweet-natured romance full of idiosyncrasies will undoubtedly forgive the rather flyweight feel.