Cast: Henry Hopper, Mia Wasikowska
Director: Gus Vant Sant
Running Time: 1 hour 31 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Director Gus Vant Sant conjures a mood of dreamy romanticism that’s simultaneously refreshing and frustrating in Restless, a movie that wants to be a quirky update of Harold and Maude for modern hipsters, but which plays more like a Hallmark greeting card doused up in twee garb. Working from a first time screenplay based on his own play by Jason Lew, this feels like middle of the road Van Sant—pitched somewhere between his lo-fi rambling indies like Drugstore Cowboy and more mainstream fare such as Goodwill Hunting. The combination is scattershot, despite gorgeous imagery of Portland, Oregon by regular Van Sant cinematographer Harris Savides, and a lovely performance by Mia Wasikowsa.
The plot centers on Enoch (Henry Hooper, son of the late Dennis Hopper), a socially detached young man who attends stranger’s funerals and generally walks around in a state of perpetual gloom. At one particular funeral, he meets a Charles Darwin-obsessed girl named Annabal (Wasikowska), who seems to share his preoccupation for quirk, which includes at one point having an imagined conversation with dead people at a local cemetery. A tentative romance develops, in which Annabel reveals she has a terminal disease, which ties into Enoch’s own near-death experience and childhood trauma. The movie is wistful and slow moving, and if Van Sant didn’t shoot everything through such a wandering lens accompanied by plenty of muttered dialogue and a precious indie rock soundtrack, one might mistake this for a Lifetime movie of the week. There’s an uncomfortable tension between twee romanticism, realized most tellingly through Enoch’s conversations with the ghost of a Japanese kamikaze pilot played with quiet dignity by Ryō Kase, and typical romance movie nonsense. Nothing that happens here even resembles reality, and that would be fine if Van Sant was able to handle the tone, but his direction feels like an uncertain attempt at summoning a 1970’s vibe of hippie youthfulness. Hooper, meanwhile, comes across as a charisma-free drone, and his narcissism could be charming as a commentary on teenage alienation if the film took its issues seriously. But Enoch isn’t a real person. He’s a writer’s construct, and Hooper doesn’t have the acting chops to imbue the character with any nuance. Wasikowsa, on the other hand, is able to take her archetypal angel with an old soul smiling in the face of death and at least give it a feeling of believability. Of course, Annabel is a preposterous character, donning Mia Farrow-esque vintage clothes and seeing everything through a doe-eyed gaze, but Wasikowsa is a talented actress and forces one to care about what happens to her character.
Restless has a few lovely moments—a late night run through the forest, a hesitant love making scene lit by flashlight, a touching reveal involving assorted food items near the end—but ultimately it ends up being just as vapid as all of those Nicholas Spark adaptations like A Walk To Remember and Dear John. For all its indie trappings and attempts at ethereal whimsy, the movie also banks on Hollywood clichés such as music swells at appropriately sad moments and the use of terminal illness as a plot device. What saves the enterprise from completely falling apart is the fact that Van Sant is simply too good a filmmaker to make a straight chick-flick doomed romance movie. There are too many odd details, like a scene set inside a hospital morgue, for him to surrender completely to mainstream sensibilities, and Wasikowsa is a luminous presence throughout. But he’s already explored the lives of damaged young people to much better effect in films like My Own Private Idaho, Elephant, and Paranoid Park. Here, he seems hamstrung by a script that’s so precious it borders on parody, and no amount of striking Portland landscapes and folksy music by Sufjan Stevens can compensate for a story that treats its characters as props and central theme of facing death as little more than an afterthought.