At once delicate and clumsy, tender and twee, “Restless” wraps the pain of grief and impending mortality in the balm of a teenage love story. Working in a more accessible, less poetic vein than that of “Paranoid Park,” his most recent excursion into the emotional lives of troubled adolescents, director Gus Van Sant draws enough low-key sweetness and charm from his young actors to offset some of the more self-consciously cutesy aspects of this quietly death-obsessed scenario. Teens and younger arthouse auds rep Sony Classics’ obvious target, though commercial returns ultimately look to be as modest as the picture itself.
On paper, the central figures in Jason Lew’s screenplay are so eccentrically conceived as to suggest refugees from a Sundance Lab explosion, or perhaps the protagonists of a more conventionally romantic “Harold and Maude.” Enoch (Henry Hopper) is a youth who compulsively attends the funerals of people he doesn’t know; it’s at one of these that he meets and befriends Annabel (Mia Wasikowska), who tells him she works with cancer patients, but turns out to be gravely ill herself.
Soon, Enoch brings Annabel to the graves of his parents, who died a few years ago in a car crash, leaving him in the care of his kind, long-suffering aunt Mabel (Jane Adams). He also introduces her to his imaginary friend, Hiroshi (Ryo Kase), who proves to be one surprisingly friendly ghost, considering his past life as a kamikaze pilot. Already haunted by the untimely deaths of the two people closest to him and about to be stricken by another, Enoch encourages Annabel to adopt a fun, irreverent attitude toward her own encroaching demise, something this free-spirited, independent-minded young woman takes to with little persuasion.
And so, as these smart, sensitive kids act out faux death scenes, mock the usual sympathetic platitudes and, in the film’s most amusing scene, debate the advisability of “Romeo and Juliet”-style seppuku, “Restless” becomes a story of young love blossoming astride an abyss. That it works at all is no small credit to the natural warmth and vivacity that emanate from Wasikowska even at her most restrained. Looking pallid and composed, her hair cut Jean Seberg-short (incidentally making her a dead ringer, sorry, for Romanian actress Anamaria Marinca), Annabel describes herself as a “naturalist,” and her fascination with wildlife and her idolatry of Charles Darwin underscore the film’s ostensibly unsentimental view of life and death. Notwithstanding the kamikaze pilot, by far the film’s most problematic and insistently quirky element, the possibility of a Great Beyond is never broached even once.
Which is not to imply that “Restless” is made of particularly strong stuff. Indeed, the actors’ genially engaging rapport can only do so much to disguise the fact that the film is a consummate grief-coping fantasy, and Wasikowska’s Annabel, however vivid and moving a presence, is ultimately a therapeutic construct for the benefit of the film’s young hero (played likably enough by newcomer Hopper). She’s there to help him accept and move on, and thus serves to steer the film toward the maudlin agenda that Enoch and Annabel earlier would have flouted.
Under the circumstances, Van Sant’s generally subdued formal approach represents a significant boon. Few current directors are able to shuttle as deftly between mainstream storytelling conventions and the more rarefied demands of art cinema, and he locates a relatively happy medium here, astutely resisting the temptation to underline his characters’ idiosyncrasies in too arch or aggressive a manner. What might have been insufferably precious now feels, if not entirely fresh or persuasive, at least gently amusing and at times genuinely affecting. How it will play to those who have experienced the death of a loved one, particularly from terminal cancer, will certainly vary; as many are as likely to be left cold as deeply moved by the steady accretion of tears in the closing passages.
Ace d.p. Harris Savides deploys a slightly washed-out yet burnished palette, making the 35mm images look as if they’ve been coated in pale honey; as befits its modest ambitions, the film has neither the polish of Van Sant’s studio efforts nor the visual boldness of his more minimalist outings, though the well-chosen rural Oregon locations have a loveliness all their own. Score by Danny Elfman and soundtrack tunes are somewhat overindulged, though they’re designed less to crank up emotion than to draw the viewer into the characters’ state of mind; the diversity of the soundtrack, which includes the Beatles, Pink Martini, Nico and Sufjan Stevens, conveys a sense of timelessness borne out by the refreshing absence of cell phones and social-media technology.
Pic is dedicated to the memory of the lead thesp’s father, Dennis Hopper.