Henry Hopper, Mia Wasikowska, Ryo Kase, Schuyler Fisk, Jane Adams
(Sony Pictures Classics; U.S. release date: 16 Sep 2011 (Limited release); 2011)
He’s a lonely boy who fixates on funerals. She’s a dying girl with a heart full of happiness. He can’t seem to shake the trauma of his parents’ tragic accident. She’s more or less accepted her terminal illness and wants to make the most out of her remaining days. That they should come together in a quirky and comical way is surely the stuff of the post-modern indie scene. Characters today can’t just care about each other in a normal fashion. Instead, there must be eccentricity and oddness, be it in tone or central premise. Luckily, all of Restless‘s issues are dealt with by seasoned provocateur Gus Van Sant. Unlike his more mainstream movies, something like this allows his own inner idealism and idiosyncrasy to fully flower. The results are resplendent…if just a bit strained.
After his mother and father are killed in a car accident, Enoch Brae (Henry Hopper) finds himself alone in a massive, aging house with only his weak-willed aunt (Jane Adams) to care for him. Desperate to find a way to channel his grief, he begins to attend funerals in and around his Portland home. There, he runs into Annabel Cotton (Mia Wasikowska) and the two strike up a quick friendship. Casually, one day, she announces that she has cancer and it is incurable. He also has a secret. As part of his ongoing depression over his tragic situation, he “speaks” to the ghost of a dead kamikaze pilot, Hiroshi (Ryo Kase). Together, our peculiar paramours begin to see the value in life and the reasons to value it. When Annabel takes a turn for the worst, however, Enoch is not ready to let her go.
Working through its wistfulness with a leisurely likeability, Van Sant’s latest is a weird little gem. It borders on black comedy while firmly planting its feet in the filmic firmament of pathos and heart. While the metaphors and themes are rather obvious - people sure do have their bizarre ways of dealing with death - the realization of these concepts is carefully constructed and thoroughly enjoyable. Of course, it comes nowhere near replicating reality (what teenage kids, no matter their state of health - mental or otherwise - fixate on birds as their last Earthly act?) and frequently overindulges in the geek irony department, but thanks to the winning performances and Van Sant’s vigilant eye on atmosphere and tone, we bypass the smarm and head directly to the many delights.
Most of the film’s groove and grace comes from Wasikowska. An virtual unknown until Tim Burton tapped her to place Alice in his take on Wonderland, this amazing British actress manages to find the humanity locked inside her otherwise insular character. Annabel may seem forthright and upfront, but there is a hidden fear inside her that comes out whenever she feels vulnerable or controlled. This happens a lot with her older sister and alcoholic mother. They don’t want Annabel to leave this world on a high, happy note. They want anger and depression and the rest of the five stages. It’s the same with Enoch. Once smitten, he cannot accept his girl’s passing without showing off some of his own anxiety. As a reflection of how others feels, Annabel (and Wasikowska) is magical.
For his part, Hopper is also excellent. His character is very guarded and so it takes a while for us to get beyond the basics. Enoch comes across as abrasive and spoiled, but when we learn why he suffers so, the actions speak volumes. This is a young man, gifted and guilt-ridden, who wants to blame everyone and everything for his current state. He is more or less without blame, but cannot find the proper way to express his own despair. As a result, he makes scenes are funerals, is fond of confronting people when they should be comforted, and ends up realizing that, for all his imaginary lessons (thanks to his invisible Japanese friend) he still has to figure things out for himself. It’s that arc which really drive Restless. Annabel story is set. It is Enoch who has to grow and change.
As usual, Van Sant finds the more interesting of the nooks and crannies of his Pacific Northwest backdrop, the better to underline the narrative’s fairytale qualities. Everything here seems surreal and yet serene, from the Forest Ranger cabin where the duo first make love to the terrific trick or treat Halloween sequence. Since he’s dealing with horizons that are gray and featureless, Van Sant accentuates those attributes, casting a pall over his players that they must then resist and redefine. That they can and do marks the makings of a great experience.
However, there is something lacking in Restless that keeps it from really grabbing us. It’s not the unending peculiarities or lack of interpersonal identification. No, it appears that first time scribe Jason Lew forget to add any sentimentality to the storyline. Sure, Hiroshi has his moments, especially when a letter he wrote to his beloved is finally read out loud. But the rest of the time, the issues surrounding Annabel and Enoch fail to fully engage us. The result is nary a tear or sense of sadness. Even as events take the tragic eventual turn, we don’t experience a sense of loss. Instead, we chalk it up to yet another adventure in the lives of these doomed darlings. Indeed, the excess of twee is what probably keeps this film from truly hitting home.
Still, Restless is a small treasure, the kind of telling effort we expect from the man responsible for Elephant and Gerry. This is not the Van Sant of big canvases and bigger stars. We are worlds away from the Boston of Good Will Hunting or the NYC of Finding Forrester. Instead, this is the oddly touching place between life and death, the living limbo where individuals come to find answers and share sorrow. For Enoch and Annabel, mortality has become an issue striking far too close to who they are. Restless or not, they will both soon have to discover how to handle what lies ahead. For both them and the audience, the possibilities are comforting…and a bit contrite.