Gus Van Sant’s ‘Restless’ is something of a mess, wallowing in deep-seated grief, masquerading as teenage optimism, cloaked in visual lyricism. Call it “MMMdeath,” as Hanson might sing.
Directed by Van Sant from an original script by Jason Lew, ‘Restless’ stars Henry Hopper as Enoch Brae, a loner who attends memorial services for people he doesn’t know. (Shades, there, of the support group addiction from ‘Fight Club’). Enoch lost his parents within the past two or three years and now lives with his aunt Mabel (Jane Adams). He doesn’t attend school, appears to be dealing with serious depression, and has an invisible friend / ghost named Hiroshi (Ryo Kase), a Japanese soldier who died during World War II.
Enoch crosses paths with Annabel Cotton (Mia Wasikowska), a cheerful girl who also attends a lot of funerals. She says she’s a volunteer at the cancer ward of a local hospital, but she is, in reality, a patient herself, and her prognosis is terminal. She lives with her loving older sister Elizabeth (Schuyler Fisk) and her alcoholic mother Rachel (Lusia Strus).
The perpetually sunny Annie latches onto Enoch, first as a morbid fellow traveler, and then as something more, their shared outlook on life and death providing the basis for a close friendship that blossoms into romance. Other than the spectre of death that hovers above Annie, their romance is much like any other teenage love affair: languid days and nights of flirtatious talk and playful intimacy.
As much as the movie resists the idea that one must bow before impending death, it also embraces the more precious aspects of adolescent immaturity. There is a fine, thin line, after all, between a positive viewpoint and a willful ignorance of mortality, and ‘Restless’ spends a disproportionate amount of time in the “let’s not talk about death as though it’s real” camp before veering wildly back into angry reality at the injustice of dying young. The deck is stacked because Annie is such a pretty girl, and the less seemly details of a fatal disease are kept carefully off-screen, the better to perpetuate the fantasy of dying young and leaving behind a good-looking corpse. Little attention is paid to Elizabeth, who must carry the burden of providing for her mother and sister financially, physically, and emotionally; she remains very much a supporting player, someone to facilitate a fragile waif who courageously spits in the eye of death. Or so the film would have it.
Wispy and poetic as only a teen dreamer can imagine, ‘Restless’ wafts across the screen, the images tumbling one upon the other like a gentle stream cascading over a small waterfall into a tiny pond. It’s pleasant and witty, and kept my attention while it played, until I walked out of the theater and the memory of the film melted into a beautiful afternoon.
‘Restless’ is now playing at the Angelika Dallas and Angelika Plano.