The story of a terminally ill teenage girl who falls for a boy who likes to attend funerals and their encounters with the ghost of a Japanese kamikaze pilot from WWII.
Gus Van Sant is as hit-and-miss of a director as there is working today. For every well-written, insightful Good Will Hunting that he makes, he seems to balance it out with a shameful waste of time like Psycho. Although it has potential, his new film, Restless, falls into the latter category.
Restless tells the story of Enoch Brae (played by Henry Hopper, son of the late, great Dennis Hopper), a young man who spends his time tracing chalk outlines of himself on the street and attending the funerals of people that he doesn't know. At one of these memorials, he meets Annabel Cotton (Mia Wasikowska from Alice in Wonderland), a terminally ill young woman who is as transfixed on life as Enoch is on death. Enoch introduces Annabel to his parents (by bringing her to their grave) and to the ghost of a Japanese Kamikaze pilot named Hiroshi (Ryo Kase from Letters from Iwo Jima) who haunts him. Annabel shows Enoch that there are things in life that make it worth living - things like songbirds and Halloween candy. The two fall for each other, but of course their romance is doomed from the start since Annabel has only three months to live. The couple is forced to cram an entire relationship, along with all of the ups and downs that go along with it, into those three months.
On the surface, Restless feels like an update of Harold and Maude. Both feature death-obsessed boys who are taught how to live life to the fullest by women who are damned to die. That's pretty much where the similarities end, however, as Harold and Maude is a dark comedy and Restless tries to be a sentimental tearjerker. Restless moves slowly, has no character or story arc and just never really gets up to speed. The ending is foretold as soon as Annabel's illness is revealed, and the film does nothing to change the path to its inevitable conclusion. Restless seems like a made-for-T.V. Lifetime network movie, not a feature film.
Restless was written by first-time screenwriter Jason Lew, and his inexperience shows. The film feels like a short film packed with filler to flesh it out to feature length. The funny thing is, with a few additions, it could have been much more effective. The film relies too heavily on the Enoch-Annabel story, forgetting the supporting cast and subplots. For example, in one scene, Enoch and Annabel are chased away from a Halloween party by a group of guys with whom Enoch apparently had a run-in with. In another scene, Hiroshi, having been killed before the end of WWII, learns about the fates of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In still another scene, Enoch confronts his Aunt (Jane Adams from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) about his parents' death. While all of these subplots and loose ends would have been great to explore, Restless just bores the audience with more montages of Enoch and Annabel.
Restless could have been saved with better actors. As the two leads in an otherwise supporting cast, Hopper and Wasikowska are tasked with carrying the entire film, and they fail miserably. Both are stiff and awkward, which is somewhat in character for Enoch and Annabel, but instead of looking like a couple of insecure adolescents in love, the two come off as a pair of high-school kids reciting lines for a drama class. Hopper seems to not know whether he wants to play Enoch as a brooding, depressed goth or an aw-shucks nerd. Wasikowska has a certain charm as Annabel, but also comes off as one-dimensional. The fact that the actors have trouble getting the audience to empathize with them makes it hard for the film's emotional climax to be successful.
In Restless, Gus Van Sant and director of photography Harris Savides (who worked with Van Sant on Milk, Last Days, and Elephant) make some interesting decisions photographically, some of which work and some of which do not. For example, in the earlier parts of the film, the principal characters are backlit by daylight, either by a window or by the sun, making their features hard for the viewer to distinguish. The intent is probably to cast darkness over the characters (particularly Enoch), as they are still mysterious to each other and to the audience, but the effect just makes their faces hard to see.
On the other hand, in one scene where Enoch and Annabel are talking to Hiroshi, the camera frames a shot that is somewhat from Annabel's point of view looking at Enoch, with Hiroshi out of focus in the background. The shot works because Annabel can't see Hiroshi so all of her attention is on Enoch. The audience knows Hiroshi is there, but the shot never switches the focus to him, so Annabel's ignorance to his presence is felt. The cinematography in Restless has some great ideas, but some of the risks just don't pay off.
September 16, 2011