During the first half of the aughts, director Gus Van Sant, having achieved success both cult (My Own Private Idaho) and mainstream (Good Will Hunting), spent much of his time working on his unofficial “death trilogy.” The first movie concerned young men lost in the wilderness (Gerry, in 2002); the second looked at a high school shooting (Elephant, 2003); and the third was more or less about Kurt Cobain (Last Days, 2005). All three films combine long, dreamy takes with a deep sense of foreboding that infuses even mundane acts like walking down a school hallway or listening to music with the volume way up.
Van Sant has made other movies since then, including the all-star, award-winning biopic Milk, but the trilogy’s themes linger. Milk, after all, examines a community affected by assassination, Paranoid Park (2007) focuses on a teenage skater and a deadly accident, and now, Restless again looks at young people confronting death in unexpected ways.
Enoch (Henry Hopper), a boy without parents, meets Annabel (Mia Wasikowska), a girl with terminal cancer, by chance at one of the funerals that he crashes. He slips in, dressed up, and observes, looking skittish and a little guilty when genuine mourners eye him suspiciously. Annabel’s interest in Enoch may seem unwarranted and convenient, but that’s just the sort of person Annabel is: open, offbeat, and curious. They begin a relationship, of sorts, and, in a deviation from the typical illness-romance script, there’s little drama about Annabel withholding her prognosis, which is less than upbeat. She tells him about it and he tries his best to act nonchalant, as if they’re in a contest to see who can treat the news with the least typical gravity. Annabel wants to spend her remaining time enjoying life, not talking about the tragedy of her potential departing.
Enoch does open up to Annabel, though, revealing irregularities of his own. For one thing, he’s haunted, in a genial sort of way, by Hiroshi (Ryo Kase), the ghost of a kamikaze pilot from World War II. Van Sant, working from a screenplay by Jason Lew, treats this matter-of-factly; it’s not a cutesy gag (though some of Hiroshi’s scenes do have a deadpan sense of humor—“White people: you have to grab everything,” he sighs when trying to teach Enoch to bow instead of shake hands), and Hiroshi’s objective reality – actual ghost? imaginary friend?—remains ambiguous, fading in and out as Enoch and Annabel spend more time together.
The other characters in the movie come and go with similar inconsistency. Annabel’s primary caretaker is her sister Elizabeth (Schuyler Fisk), and their scenes together explore their relationship without miring the movie in exposition; a scene late in the movie that has them sorting and classifying Halloween candy together is beautifully played by Fisk and Waskiowska. Other cast members are also affecting: Hopper, son of the late Dennis Hopper, is particularly good at conveying, with smug wiseass rejoinders and awkward body language, the barely hidden pain of a kid who may not be as smart or interesting as he imagines.
As in the death trilogy, Van Sant uses the lack of strong incident in the plot to create a sense of real intimacy between his characters. And like those movies, this one is shot by Harris Savides, here using the muted palette of an overcast fall day. But even with its low-gloss look and limited release, Restless isn’t really an art house exercise, either in morose doominess or twee preciousness. It’s about ways that young people process loss when they shouldn’t have to. Essentially, it’s a teen movie, something that seems to have been overlooked by much of the critical response so far.
Some critics have characterized Restless as something of a thin, gauzy compromise between the director’s unsettling young death movies and the more sentimental streak he showed in Good Will Hunting or Finding Forrester. But the young adult audience, while well served by the publishing industry, doesn’t get many serious but accessible movies about teenagers. That audience will be far less sensitive to whether this story lives up to the doomy minimalism of Gerry, and less likely to cry “Manic pixie dream girl! Too cute!” any time a young female character smiles and dresses in offbeat clothing.
These criticisms of the movie—too cute, too nice, too soft – are not entirely unwarranted. Restless is, at times, a wisp of a movie, pretty and yes, sometimes thin. But Annabel and Enoch’s refusal to indulge in the weeping and mourning of a typical death-centric romance feels honest. Van Sant looks for moments of sweetness, not opportunities to needle the audience into tears. Maybe he’s earned the right to look at death from a different angle this time.