By Dave Wilson | October 7, 2011
Director: Gus Van Zant
Writer: Jason Lew
Starring: Henry Hopper, Mia Wasikowska, Ryo Kase, Schuyler Fisk, Lusia Strus, Jane Adams
“Let me get this straight,” one character says to Enoch (Henry Hopper), the teenage hero of Restless. “You’re a funeral crashing dropout with no car and a dead friend?”
Yep, Enoch’s path is a strange and difficult one. As Gus Van Sant’s new film opens, Enoch is a brooding teen who, like Bud Cort in Harold and Maude, likes to don his best suit and overcoat and slip into funerals and memorial services. As if that weren’t enough, Enoch’s constant companion and confidant is a dead World War II kamikaze pilot named Hiroshi (Ryo Kase), who also plays a mean game of Battleship.
Then one day Enoch meets the delightful, impish Annabel Cotton (Mia Wasikowska) at a memorial service. Annabel, like Ruth Gordon’s Maude, immediately sizes up Enoch as an impostor and latches onto him, pestering him, and hoping to tease out the mystery of his funeral crashing ways. Enoch, we learn, survived a catastrophic car accident that killed both of his parents.
Luckily, Annabel is also a charming teenage eccentric. An aspiring naturalist with a passion for ornithology, Annabel sketches birds and beetles in her journal and has a crush on Charles Darwin. But where Enoch exists in a state of perpetual mourning, Annabel is full of life and passion; she is mischievous, impulsive, and intensely curious.
Unfortunately, Annabel also has an inoperable brain tumor and only has three months left to live. “A person can get a lot done in three months,” Enoch says. “You can learn French or…take up the xylophone.” Or so much more, when you’re a manic pixie dream girl on overdrive. I think this is the only film I’ve ever seen about a dying manic pixie dream girl, who still seems to be channeling Bringing Up Baby.
Enoch and Annabel form an immediate bond, and what could have been a dreary illness of the week movie becomes a sort of quiet, off-beat fable about friendship and first love. The rest of the film documents the couple’s efforts to fill Annabel’s last few weeks with impulsive activities, spontaneous projects, and important life lessons while trying to keep reality from bumming them out.
Restless is a curious project for Gus Van Sant, and it’s difficult to find any corrollaries in his work. It is far too low-key, rough around the edges, and deliberately paced to find any kind of mainstream audience–even one that prefers self-consciously hip indie films. Then again, Restless also isn’t one of Van Sant’s stark, voyeuristic no-name actor specials, all about mood and ennui. Of these, Elephant is surely his masterpiece.
In fact, when Jason Lew’s script calls for stronger emotions to explode to the surface, the results are wildly uneven. This film is too gentle and even-handed to contain Enoch’s few outbursts of rage and denial, and so we get several awkward confrontations that truly border on the melodramatic.
When it works, Restless lulls you because it is quiet and charming and so damned earnest. Much of the time, it just feels good to hang out with Enoch and Annabel, who speak in a kind of stylized banter and simply care so much about each other.
But Restless is incredibly clunky and infuriating at times, with romantic, cloying dialogue full of analogies about burying beetles and dying songbirds. In many ways, this is less a film about the specter of death than a glimpse of a few weeks of intoxicating puppy love. I am really not trying to be dismissive.
Restless reaches for the same stillness and dead calm that Van Sant captured so effectively in films like Elephant and Paranoid Park — that feeling of “waiting for something to happen.” Unfortunately, the stylized dialogue and elements of magical realism in Restless just don’t settle into this zone very comfortably. There is very little drama or conflict in this film at all, despite Annabel’s illness. Instead of going for the jugular or sustaining a mood, Van Sant is perfectly content to let us drift alongside Annabel and Enoch like Hiroshi, the ghost.