“I think I was attracted by the sort of singular nature of these guys’ relationship that was really focused on the two of them from the very beginning and all the way to the end. There weren’t really diversions. It was just about their friendship and their love for each other,” says Gus Van Sant, explaining his choice for his latest endeavor, Restless.

The acclaimed director, renowned for his films like Good Will Hunting (1997) and Milk (2008), brings yet another heartfelt story to the screen, this time starring the talented Australian actress Mia Wasikowska (The Kids Are Alright, Alice in Wonderland) as Annabel Cotton, a charming teenage girl who has “a deep felt love of life and the natural world.” She is also dying of cancer.

“It’s a love story that is about a new relationship outside the family at a time that it is impossible for the family members to face the sadness of losing a loved one,” adds Van Sant.

Newcomer Henry Hopper, son of the late actor and director Dennis Hopper, plays Enoch Brae, an introverted young man traumatized by his parents’ deaths. Enoch meets Annabel at one of the funerals he crashes, one of his many odd habits that make him an outcast.

Hopper says, “Annabel sees something in Enoch that he’s not aware of. She sees him for the unique person that he is. Despite how heavy their experiences are, together they find a playful way of approaching things. She changes his whole approach to life.”

Wasikowska as Annabel certainly brings an endearing playfulness to the story. She says, “The best way I can describe Annabel is that she’s full of life. Despite everything, she has an amazing capacity to love life; she finds beauty in very small, simple things. Enoch has been deeply affected by what’s happened to him, and I think when they meet each other, they bring out the best aspects of each other. Their relationship is very special, in that they teach other and help each other not be afraid. They are the missing puzzle piece in each other’s life. Even though the story of Annie and Enoch spans such a small amount of time, from the beginning they have a close bond.”

Another standout on the film’s roster of talents is Ryo Kase, who plays the ghost of a World War II Kamikaze pilot with whom Enoch spends most of his time.

“He’s an imaginary friend of Enoch’s character. He has a little bit of an ominous quality because he appeared when Enoch was in the hospital. He sort of has an association with death that does exist. But I always thought of him as more of an imaginary facet of Enoch’s world,” explains Van Sant.

The actors’ youthful energy set against the beautiful cinematography keep the film feeling somewhat light and humorous despite its heavy subject. Set in his hometown of Portland, Ore., Van Sant says, “There’s a lot of moody weather, and it looks really good on film. It has a lot of different odd, gray skies. [Hopper] was impressed by how long the days were, they were like 10-hour days … Sometimes it’s hard to shoot, [but] Portland has a timeless quality [that] the story did. We were setting the story today, but the characters – like a lot of the kids that we knew in Portland – can’t really afford high fashion, but they can afford used fashion. So they were able to have interesting clothes from thrift stores.”

Apart from taking advantage of his familiarity with his hometown, Van Sant also takes inspiration from another familiar name, director Terrence Malick.

“He uses silent takes when he makes film. I had done it in Milk, and we’d use some of those takes. We realize that it was valuable to use when we were finished shooting a series of takes where people didn’t talk. So I did it again on this film. We use the footage sometimes to maybe lighten up the scenes or to extend silences so that they break up some of the dialogue. We made an entire version of the film silent.”

Van Sant’s inspired method and a well-chosen location certainly pay off in Restless, but in the end, it’s the talent that makes this film stand out.

“They were all really great,” he says. “There was a nice sort of camaraderie between us. We had fun.”

Restless releases in select theaters Sept. 16.