Two outsiders (Henry Hopper, Mia Wasikowska), both shaped by the circumstances that have brought them together, forge a deep and lasting love.

Tragic love story just barely avoids sentimentality.

CANNES: This just in: Every living thing dies.

Whether it's Camille coughing with consumption, an incredulous gunfighter crashing to the ground from a fatal bullet or Don Corleone keeling over while frolicking with a child, the shuffling off of this mortal coil lends itself to the larger than life canvas of the big screen.

Restless, Gus Van Sant's first film since the outstanding boy meets boy(s) biopic Milk, is a boy meets girl story. He's smart and adorable and morbid. She's smart and adorable and doomed.

The director has done his or her job well when you feel genuine emotion at the death of a character, even though you know that the actor who played the part got up and walked away after the scene was shot.

Van Sant has made many films that celebrate young characters with unlined faces. Young faces, young bodies, a young outlook – all of these are supposed to represent promise and potential and limitless horizons. This just in: Life is not fair.

Restless is poignant, bittersweet and comes dangerously close to being syrupy. But the two leads – Henry Hopper as Enoch and Mia Wasikowska as Annabel – are so freshly minted, so simultaneously daring and tentative that they carry off this tale of first love. If she wasn't scheduled to expire before the closing credits, they could form a band called Eros and Thanatos and The Ticking Clock.

Annabel and Enoch first cross paths at a memorial service. It turns out that Enoch likes to attend funerals, hang out in cemeteries and has a sidekick named Hiroshi. (Hiroshi is presented as a pal who plays board games like Battleship with Enoch. Only gradually does it emerge that only Enoch can see him.)

Whether he realises it or not, Enoch needs somebody else to talk to. He lives in a nice house with a solicitous aunt, no parents and an imaginary ghost friend, a kamikaze pilot in his age bracket. Forever.

The film appropriates notions from films that came before but wears the borrowing lightly. Harold and Maude (1971) comes to mind. Poor little rich boy Harold tries to get his aloof mother's attention by staging darkly elaborate suicide scenarios. When he meets much (much!) older Maude, he has found a playmate whose spontaneity and zest for life hasn't diminished with age.

Cameron Crowe's new doco The Union, about the friendship between Elton John and fellow musician Leon Russell, claims that Harold and Maude director Hal Ashby offered the role of Harold to Elton John. That seems as close to impossible as a casting choice can be. Bud Cort played the part to perfection and beyond. As Harold he's deadpan sardonic and stages his own death for sport – right down to the Japanese ritual suicide seppuku that he performs for arranged date, Sunshine Doré. Harold is in his early 20s and Maude is about to turn 80. She's full of life – but only to a point.

Here, Enoch has been deprived of his familial moorings by fate and was even clinically dead for three minutes. He thrives on death-related situations that most people strive to avoid. But thinking about death is, well, a dead end.

The film's stance is that death means nothingness – no angles, no heaven, no joyous reunion with dead relatives or pets, just a really long stretch of nothingness. Annabel positively reeks of lucidity. She's the one with a terminal illness – not one that makes you ugly or unreasonable. Just one that kills you.

And she is serene in the knowledge that her days are numbered. An avid naturalist who admires Darwin to pieces and likes to sketch birds, Annabel sees no reason to stop acquiring knowledge, even if the brain she's storing it in is not long for this world. She may be ill but she has an exceedingly healthy imagination. She's frank and funny.

When Enoch and Annabel meet, they don't really get along. Then, in the tradition of movie romances, they start to click. He's a loner primed to be less alone. They do the things young people do, putting their own spin on hanging out.

Hopper (the handsome son of Dennis) and Wasikowska (who was so convincing as the daughter in The Kids Are All Right) are fun to watch. She is splendid as a living, breathing, dying individual. "I just got some tests back," she says. "I flunked."

Van Sant navigates the mix of whimsey and inevitability with a practiced hand. In his Drugstore Cowboy (1989), a bummer of an overdose dents the fun of being young and beautiful and drug addicted. In My Own Private Idaho (1991) a narcoleptic River Phoenix seems always within reach of the Grim Reaper. In Elephant (2003), a high school's worth of inarticulate young people ends up on the receiving end of the inchoate frustration of two classmates. In Last Days (2005), the seriously lovely but dishevelled Michael Pitt stumbles around as a Kurt Cobain-like young man – but being young and healthy on the outside doesn't impress the guy with the scythe with whom Max von Sydow played chess in The Seventh Seal (1957).

And in Restless, two beautiful young people share the urgency and heightened perception of knowing that love will come to an end, not from the wear and tear of time but from too little of it.

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1 hour 31 min
In Cinemas 01 December 2011,