Restless (United States, 2011)

September 20, 2011
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Restless Poster

The most surprising thing about Restless, the latest film from indie director Gus Van Sant, is how conventional it is. Of course, this is not the first time Van Sant, whose penchant is for offbeat productions with little widespread appeal, has entered the mainstream. His Good Will Hunting, for example, was a crossover hit, filling auditoriums in both art house theaters and multiplexes. Restless is among a handful of readily accessible motion pictures. In an effort to keep the story, which sounds like a Nicholas Sparks novel when reduced to a one-sentence summary, from seeming too much like a generic romantic drama, Van Sant has sprinkled the movie with "indie markers" - a somewhat obnoxious musical soundtrack, a distant tone some may find off-putting, and an unhurried approach to advancing the plot. These elements are at times distracting - calling cards crying out "This is still an indie film!" - but they don’t detract from the things that ultimately make Restless an emotionally rewarding experience: strong performances from leads Henry Hopper and Mia Wasikowska and a tender love story conveyed with genuine feeling.

Both Enoch (Hopper) and Annabel (Wasikowska) are fascinated by death. Considering their circumstances, it's understandable. Enoch's parents were killed in a car crash that nearly claimed his life as well - he was clinically dead for a short time and no one expected him to survive. Annabel has terminal cancer; the doctors have given her three months to live. This keen sense of mortality casts a pall over Restless - even in its lighter moments, one can never forget how closely the characters waltz with the Grim Reaper.

They meet, appropriately enough, at a funeral. Annabel was a friend of the dead boy. Enoch has made a hobby of funeral crashing. Some view this as disrespectful to the corpse, but Enoch shows up and quietly pretends to grieve while hoping to find a greater understanding of death. Annabel recognizes that he's not a legitimate mourner and chooses to join him on his next outing. They become friends and something more - then she tells him about her date with mortality. He in turn reveals that his best friend is a ghost - a Japanese kamikaze named Hiroshi (Ryo Kase) who died during World War II. The movie leaves it up to the viewer to determine whether Hiroshi is real or a figment of Enoch's imagination.

It's difficult to like Enoch. He is introverted, uncommunicative, and belligerent. We warm to him over time, primarily as we get to see his softer side through his interactions with Annabel, who, despite her pragmatism, remains sweet and charming. She wants to experience as much of life as she can in the days remaining to her, but there's no bucket list. Like a song bird she idolizes, she sees every morning when she awakens as a gift.

Hopper and Wasikowska give credible, down-to-earth performances, and they mesh well with one another. They have all the passion one might expect from two young people caught up in a doomed romance. For Annabel, this is one last chance to latch onto something she might otherwise have missed. It's more difficult for Enoch, who is used to keeping his emotions shuttered and who goes into this affair with the certainty that it will end painfully for him. The audience is aware of this as well, and it makes the love story heartbreaking.

This is the first serious role for Hopper, the son of Dennis Hopper; his presence is forceful and at times a little fearsome. Wasikowska, who has been enriching her resume with mainstream roles like the title ones in Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland and the classically-minded Jane Eyre, is as good as she has been in anything else, and she appears decidedly pixie-like (and a little like Carey Mulligan) with her short hair. The supporting cast includes Schuyler Fisk (as Annabel's sister) and Jane Adams (as Enoch's aunt), but the movie is all about Enoch and Annabel, and it is at its best when they share the screen, with or without others.

Van Sant salts the film with moments of macabre humor, but never goes beyond the bounds of good taste. His directorial touch is restrained. The obligatory sex scene is handled delicately, expressing sensuality but nothing more overt. The filmmaker is respectful of the characters and their circumstances, and gets the most out of his actors by this approach. By curbing his independent flourishes, he is making a movie more for the Good Will Hunting/Milk crowd than for those who have sought out Elephant or Paranoid Park. As compromises go, this one results in a dramatically and emotionally solid 90 minutes.

Restless (United States, 2011)

Director: Gus Van Sant
Cast: Henry Hopper, Mia Wasikowska, Ryo Kase, Schuyler Fisk, Jane Adams
Screenplay: Jason Lew
Cinematography: Harris Savides
Music: Danny Elfman
U.S. Distributor: Sony Classics
Run Time: 1:31
U.S. Release Date: 2011-09-16
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Sexual Content, Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1