Restless: Doomed Romance by Van Sant C+
Gus Van Sant is nothing if
not an unpredictable director. As a filmmaker, he’s been consistently attracted
to the portraiture of American youth—its confusion, alienation, disturbance. In
his best work, he has illuminated what it is to be an outsider, living in the
periphery of dominant culture and he margins of mainstream society.
A regular presence at the
Cannes Film Fest, Van Sant won the 2002 Palme d’Or for “Elephant,” the first
segment of what could be described as a trilogy, which includes “Last Days” and
“Paranoid Park,” all of which were shown in the
main competition, and all of which displayed his distinctive vision and unique
It is therefore with great
regret that I have to describe his latest effort, “Restless,” which serves as
the opener of the Certain Regard series, a mediocre effort at best and an
artistic disappointment at worst. Simple to a fault, this romantic melodrama
between two doomed youngsters lacks the nuance, dramatic tension, and bravura
visual style we have come to expect from Van Sant. “Restless” is anything but
what its title suggests or implies. The movie unfolds as a rather static,
emotionally inert tale, which goes through the familiar motions of death and
dying without leaving much of an impact.
Though the movie is well
shot and well acted, it doesn’t help that its vision is limited and that there
are only two characters. What you see on screen in “Restless” is what you get;
there is no subtext or subtlety. As such, the movie might be the most conventional,
borderline banal picture that Van Sant has made in his 25-year career.
The gifted Mia Wasikowska,
who may be the busiest actress this year (she appeared back to back in
“Alice in Wonderland,” “The Kids Are All Right,” and most
recently, “Jane Eyre”) plays Annabel Cotton, a beautiful and charming
terminal cancer patient with a deep felt love of life and the natural world,
specifically water birds.
Initially, she is
contrasted with Enoch Brae (Henry Hopper, son of Dennis Hopper), a young man
who has dropped out of school (and life), after an accident that had claimed
the life of his parents. As a result, he has become a funeral junkie, who’s
obsessed with death. Elegantly dressed in white shirt, black tie and jacket, he
goes from one memorial service to another.
When these two outsiders
meet by chance at a funeral, they find an unexpected common ground in their
unique experiences of the world. For Enoch, this (fantasy) world includes his
best friend Hiroshi (Ryo Kase), who happens to be the ghost of a Kamikaze
fighter pilot. For Annabel, it involves an admiration of Charles Darwin and an
interest in how other creatures live.
The last thing on Enoch’s
mind is to befriend and court a girl, and so he rejects with a good deal of
cynicism (actually self-protection) Annabel’s efforts to get closer to him.
However, upon learning of Annabel’s imminent early passing, Enoch offers to
help her go through her last days. What begins as sort of a “rescue” mission
gradually turns into an irreverent abandon, tempting fate and even death.
It soon becomes clear that
both Enoch and Annabel are experiencing their first true love; in her case,
it’s also the last one. Clearly, some of their meetings evoke memorable
eccentric romances, such as “Harold and Maude,” which must have
inspired the writer, Jason Lew. Other scenes contain cute and cutesy lines that
belong to a schmaltzy picture like the 1970 blockbuster “Love Story.”
As their unique love for
each other grows, the realities of the surrounding world are closing in on them.
Daring, childlike, and incurably romantic, the two bravely face what life has
in store for them. Fighting with playfulness and originality pain, anger, and
ultimately loss the two misfits try to make (and live by) their own rules.
Inevitably, though, their journey begins to collide with the unstoppable march
of time as Annabel’s condition deteriorates.
It’s hard to see what
precisely has attracted Van Sant to the material as he doesn’t bring any
particularly illuminating insights to the tale or to the characters of its two
protagonists. In theory, the movie is meant to be a hymn to life, a celebration
of the redemptive power of love, but in practice, most of what unfolds on
screen is not only overly familiar from numerous other tales, but also pedestrian.
Most of the film’s problems
reside in the conception and writing by first-timer Jason Lew, who was a
classmate at NYU of Bryce Dallas Howard (the daughter of Ron Howard), who’s
credited as a producer. The episodic screenplay betrays its origins as a collection
of short stories and vignettes, which were then developed into a play.
Van Sant and Lew tend to
isolate their protagonists from their surrounding realities. Enoch has two
scenes with his aunt, played by Jane Adams, who’s totally wasted. For her part,
Annabel has a family, but her interactions with her sister and mother are
Lacking subtlety and depth,
“Restless” gives the impression of an unfinished screenplay and a
movie that might have been executed too quickly, without fully developing its dramatic
I have been a keen observer
of Van Santa’s interesting career from its very beginnings, and for the sake of
being fair, I would like to commend him for at least not making a schmaltzy Hollywood picture like the crass and cutesy
“Love Story,” or a tear-jerking sentimental TV Movie of the Week.
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