Director: Gus Van Sant
Starring: Henry Hopper, Mia Wasikowska, Ryo Kase, Jane Adams, Schuyler Fisk
Filmmaker Gus Van Sant, even at 59 years old, looks like the sort of guy who should be wearing jeans, a T-shirt and a hoodie. In face, body language and spirit, he retains a certain boyishness — perhaps in some small way infused, throughout the years, by his thematic preoccupation with unconventional romance and coming-of-age stories, and the idea of surrogate family. “Restless,” his latest effort behind the camera, and the first since Sean Penn scored a Best Actor Oscar for “Milk,” treads this same familiar ground, but to mostly pleasurable if still rather fleeting effect. A tenderly stylistic evocation of young love wrapped inside a New Wave-esque bundle of wistfulness and nervous, under-the-surface energy, it’s a movie whose graceful direction doesn’t merely trump its plotting, but instead helps elevate it.
When he meets Annabel Cotton (Mia Wasikowska), a beautiful and charming terminal cancer patient who holds the grim finality of her plight at bay with a combination of shrugging acceptance and blithe denial, Enoch Brae (Henry Hopper, son of the late Dennis Hopper) is an almost classically shut-down indie film male protagonist, with a disconsolate demeanor and achingly European wardrobe (the film is set in the Pacific Northwest, Van Sant’s old stomping ground) to go along with his imaginary best friend (Ryo Kase) who, yes, just happens to be the ghost of a Kamikaze fighter pilot. Basically just tripping through life, Enoch hits up funeral receptions of people he doesn’t know in order to enjoy the free buffets, and lives in a hermetic cocoon. Annabel changes that, at first by mere degrees and then more substantively.
A kind of arthouse mash-up of “Sweet November,” “One Day” and “Love and Other Drugs,” “Restless” was adapted by writer Jason Lew from a series of actors’ workshop scenes he first penned for classmate Bryce Dallas Howard, who encouraged him to then develop it into a feature film (and retains a hands-on producer credit on the finished project as well). Van Sant’s deftly understated direction takes narrative bits that could in other hands easily be rendered overly precious (Enoch’s imaginary friend is a good example) and instead imbues them with an elliptical sense of heartbreak and yearning.
Invested, whole-bodied lead performances also help the movie connect as a romance. If Enoch remains still somewhat inscrutable — Hopper has a natural charisma, but over-dials the brooding just a bit — Annabel is kind of casually heartrending. Her matter-of-fact demeanor (along with an inspired scene which has the pair rehearsing their parting words on her mock deathbed) safeguards the movie from treacly emotional overreach. Instead, for the most part it feels just so, in tone and temperament.
“Restless” lacks any strong supporting characters, however (Jane Adams and Schuyler Fisk do the helpless-family-member thing), which also gives it something of a walled-off feeling. Part of particularly adolescent love, of course, is found in the feeling that heretofore no one else has understood you and now you’ve suddenly located this complementary piece unlike anything else in the world. What helps give big screen drama an emotional wallop, though, is a sense of grander connection to the outside world — of how those feelings, whether lost or retained, impact interactions with others, and an overall mindset and view of life on a macro level. “Restless” is a well constructed little diorama, but one whose elicited feelings do not, alas, linger.
Written by: Brent Simon