Gus Van Sant’s teen death drama, Restless, goes very gentle into that good night. Shot in honeyed autumnal colours in the director’s home town of Portland, Ore., the film follows the love story between an ill girl (Mia Wasikowska) and her death-obsessed boyfriend (Henry Hopper).
Van Sant is the film world’s answer to J.D. Salinger, an artist with an acute sympathy for the struggles of alienated young people in My Own Private Idaho, Good Will Hunting and Elephant. As with Salinger, though, Van Sant can slip from delicate to mawkish, as he does here in a film that is often as insipid as one of Nicholas Sparks’s commercial melodramas.
Enoch (Hooper) is a preppy-looking boy who likes crashing funerals, listening to the services and enjoying the free lunch. At one memorial service, he meets Annabelle (Wasikowska), winsome in a Jean Seberg-like blond bob and persistent in her interest in him. Enoch has a secret: Briefly left clinically dead by a car accident that killed his parents, he has a ghost friend, a Japanese kamikaze pilot named Hiroshi (Ryo Kase) who regularly beats him at Battleship and offers him ethical guidance.
By comparison, Annabelle’s problems are conventional: She has a brain tumour and only months to live. In lieu of a guardian ghost, she has a salt-of-the-earth protective older sister (Schuyler Fisk).
Enoch promises he’ll help guide her through her death, because, he says, he knows a lot about these things. They are both determined to see Annabelle off with a series of creative flourishes. They dress up in vintage clothes and go cycling and boating to Danny Elfman’s whimsical score and the whispered songs of Sufjan Stevens. They mock the conventional pieties regarding death, going on a date, for example, to a hospital morgue or enacting their own Romeo and Juliet death scene.
Relentlessly twee as all this is, Wasikowska’s warmth and Hopper’s off-beat timing (he’s the son of the late Dennis Hopper) are appealing to watch. Annabelle is a budding naturalist who loves birds, an element Wasikowska has incorporated into the performance in shy and darting movements. Because she and Hopper resemble each other physically, there are moments when the sentimental dialogue fades into the background, and we seem to be witnessing an exotic avian mating dance.
Shot with straightforward economy, using a slightly bleached-out palette, Restless is amusingly matter of fact about its magic-realist touches, but it feels counterfeit in any scenes that deal with real matters of illness and death. Sure, there are hospital rooms and tests and one balletic seizure, but mostly life seems to float by, and ends as easily as a bubble in the breeze.
- Directed by Gus Van Sant
- Written by Jason Lew
- Starring Mia Wasikowska and Henry Hopper
- Classification: PG