The day on which I saw Restless was what can be described as the ideal autumn day. A blistering Indian summer had faded into the coolness of approaching winter, seizing me somewhere in between. The ground was damp, footsteps only made apparent by the euphonious crunch of fresh leaves underfoot. The city in the space between autumn dawn and dusk is quite and cool, and smells of fresh earth. The late light catches just so on the maple tree, igniting its leaves into incendiary warmth, resisting the breath of a nippy breeze.

Restless has just the same feel to it, lingering somewhere between the hopefulness of late summer and the inevitable onset of winter. The film happens to take place in a west coast autumn, with tones of earth and rust dominating the cinematographic palette. However, the season seems to adopt a more figurative significance as well, as the narrative concerns the dwindling days of a newly-blossomed relationship between a troubled young man named Enoch (Henry Hopper) and a terminally ill young woman named Annabel (Mia Wasikowska). Like the season of autumn, you don’t forget that Annabel is dying (the last remnants of a youthful summer); the gentle reminders only come in bittersweet and melancholy droughts of a winter wind.

While it may not be the most original of plots and dangles precariously on the edge of cliché, it is the relationships between main characters, bound together inescapably by their idiosyncrasies (they meet at a funeral after all), which raise this film above reproach. Gus van Sant has always been a sensitive observer of youth in all its facets, and Restless finds him in a particularly poignant mood. The performances are subtly nuanced with the genuine hesitation of adolescent relationships – Hopper fully embodies a sweetly awkward and hesitant outsider (obsessed with other people’s funerals), and Wasikowska delightfully leads her character away from a dreaded MPDG stereotype, and provides us with a serene and courageous fully-realised young woman (an aspiring Darwin-inspired naturalist). Perhaps the most touching relationship is between Enoch and his (imaginary) friend Hiroshi, which follows its own bittersweet trajectory and adds to the whimsical quality of this constructed modern fairytale.

Heavy-handed death metaphors are both redundant and unnecessary, and too many films have dwelled in their morbid angst concerning the subject and the tremulous moments leading up to it. Restless is not about avoiding death, but about making life worth living. The comparisons with Harold & Maude may be inevitable, but it is van Sant’s best since Elephant, both quirky and earnest in its intent, and demonstrating with sly irony that death and dying need not be as morbid as they are made out to be.