“Well-meaning, but crudely drawn”
I always thought that there were two Gus Van Sants, two very distinct filmic personalities. There is the commercial Van Sant that was responsible for Good Will Hunting, Finding Forrester and the very strange shot-by-shot remake of Psycho. And then there is the art-house Van Sant of My Own Private Idaho, Elephant, and Last Days. I appreciate the work coming from each of these personalities; although, I am more drawn to the intimate and intuitive films like Mala Noche (his first feature). But there is now a third Van Sant, and he hovers tenuously in the space between these two extremes. This third personality directed Restless.
Restless has a polished Hollywood sheen that is achingly sentimental. It wants to have a certain broad appeal, while maintaining a quirky indie-sensibility. None of it seems organic in the least. This film is trying very hard to be mainstream and yet tickle the fancies of the art-house crowd. I wasn’t drawn into this story; its sights and sounds struck me as too strategic.
Enoch is obsessed with death (ever since his parents died), and as fate would have it, he meets Annabel—his perfect soulmate (because she’s dying). She’s oh-so-quirky with a wonderful attitude about her impeding demise. I am not suggesting that dying characters must be sad and miserable, but it irks me when they are impossible pixie dreamgirls. The film is oh-so-precious all of the time. Enoch and Annabel move through life completely free from the harsh confines of circumstance. And everything seems to take place at dusk, with soft orange light filling almost every frame.
I was very fond of the device the film employs to facilitate Enoch’s self-exploration—his imaginary friend Hiroshi, the ghost of a former kamikaze pilot. It sounds silly, and it is, but it’s one of the few strokes of whimsy that actually works well.
The film revels in cliches, but it doesn’t quite have the grace to make these cliches—youthful obsession with death! Finding light in the darkness!—charming. It tries to be very sweet and quirky, but simply reminds me of a film that was far better. Restless tries so very hard to be a modern-day Harold and Maude, and just doesn’t have the charm or insight. It does try, though. It attempts to lighten the atmosphere surrounding Annabel’s impeding demise with humourous dialogue that suggests how far these kids are above superficial attitudes regarding the finality of death.
Annabel: “I have a transfusion tomorrow. Want to come see me after?” To which, Enoch responds: “I love it when girls ask me that.”
This dialogue might work if the humour was less schematic, and if there were some desperation lurking behind the words—if the humour became a true respite from the enormous burden placed upon them by the very short timeline of their relationship. But the writing and performances never dig deep enough, and so the humour feels forced and cheap. Henry Hopper and Mia Wasikowska are by no means bad, they just don’t have the same presence as Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon (Harold and Maude).
I understand the valid idea lurking in this film—that it is important to celebrate life while we are living it—but the film doesn’t live this idea; it just tells us. So, see Restless. Why not? It is trying to be special, and the attempt is worth a chance at your heart. But promise me that you’ll then seek out Harold and Maude, and allow yourself to be completely swept away by something that just happens to BE truly special.
Director: Gus Van Sant
Writer: Jason Lew
Stars: Mia Wasikowska, Henry Hopper and Ryo Kase