After his parents are killed in a car crash, the thoughtful young Enoch (Hopper) becomes obsessed with death, attending random funerals and chatting to Hiroshi (Kase), the ghost of a young kamikaze pilot. The at one memorial service, Enoch is rumbled by Annabel (Wasikowska), who pursues a friendship with him. As they become closer, Enoch learns that the sparky Annabel has a fatal illness, which means he can no longer put off dealing with the fact that death is actually part of life.
Beautifully shot by Harris Savides, the film has a warm, cluttered real-life look that immediately disarms us. Despite the premise, we're certainly not in syrupy Nicholas Sparks territory; Van Sant tells the story without dipping into sentimentality, letting awkward interaction draw us in so we can sympathise with characters who cope with big issues in bracingly truthful ways. And there's nothing simplistic about any of them; even side roles for Adams (as Enoch's aunt-guardian) and Fisk (as Annabel's protective big sister) are a bundle of compassion and fear.
Hopper (son of Dennis) has a terrific screen presence that holds our attention from the start. He may be slightly too beautiful, but he has a compelling inner life that conveys Enoch's teen fragility and resilience. But then we can't take our eyes off Wasikowska, who delivers yet another magnetic performance packed with unexpected emotion and offhanded humour. It's easy to believe that Annabel would shake up Enoch's life. And their more tender scenes together are beautifully played.
So it's a little frustrating that the film tries so hard to be quirky and cute, with a Danny Elfman score and indie songs that are almost painfully hip.
There's also a slightly pushy message that feels tacked on by a nervous Hollywood studio chief ("We have so little time to say the things we mean") who doesn't trust the otherwise tentative, subtle approach to a powerful theme.
Because that's what makes this film essential viewing.
Run time: 91 mins
In Theaters: Wednesday 6th April 2011
Box Office USA: $0.2M
Box Office Worldwide: $163.3 thousand
Distributed by: Sony Pictures
Production compaines: Columbia Pictures, Imagine Entertainment, 360 Pictures
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 36%
Fresh: 39 Rotten: 68
IMDB: 6.8 / 10
Director: Gus Van Sant
Screenwriter: Jason Lew
Starring: Mia Wasikowska as Annabel Cotton, Henry Hopper as Enoch Brae, Ryō Kase as Hiroshi Takahashi, Schuyler Fisk as Elizabeth Cotton, Jane Adams as Mabel Tell, Lusia Strus as Rachel Cotton, Jesse Henderson as Alger Cofax, Kyle Leatherberry as Elliot
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