Henry Hopper and Mia Wasikowska star in indie romance Restless (2011)
Straddling the divide between winsome indie twee and genuine idiosyncrasy, Gus Van Sant's Restless was not high on my priorities list when it played during 2011's LFF, largely thanks to its worrisome invocation of Harold And Maude (Ashby, 1971), one of my favorite films of all time. It just looked a bit too... cute. Well, despite some early frustrations (maudlin protagonist Enoch builds a house out of cheese crackers) this elegiac portrait of picturesque Portland, inhabited by ghosts and fatalistic teens, is a deeply moving love story - unconventional in the best way possible.
Enoch (Henry Hopper) has his life on hiatus, mourning the death of his parents and struggling to readjust to society. Now living with his aunt Mabel (the criminally underrated Jane Adams), Enoch frequents stranger's funerals in order to channel his own grief, and at one service meets the quirky, cancer-stricken Annabel (Mia Wasikowska). These introverted teens, who share an interest in death, slowly fall for each other, aware that their love must be curtailed by Annabel's three month lifespan. Restless tells the story of their tender, fleeting romance...
It all sounds achingly drippy, I know, and listening to characters wax lyrical about Darwin does have its frustrations, but the sensitivity of Jason Lew's screenplay transcends the manic mawkishness of individual scenes, like Annabel's death rehearsal and the contrived rift it causes in her and Enoch's relationship (this is Lew's version of the rom-com third act cliché where the lovers decide they may not be right for each other, only to later reunite over extraordinary circumstances). They're played in a low-key fashion, but even the story's bolder eccentricities are kept in check thanks to Van Sant's ever perspicacious window into the teenage mind...
From Finding Forrester (2000) to Paranoid Park (2007), the director has spent most of the last fifteen years examining the psyche of outcast or damaged young men, and while Restless finds him treading the same ground it also presents, in Mia Wasikowska, his first female lead since Nicole Kidman in To Die For (1995). Since her breakout performance in Alice In Wonderland (Burton, 2010) Wasikowska has proven herself as an actress of considerable depth and range, and here she delivers her finest performance to date - balancing the hurt of Annabel's illness with her natural joie de vivre and compassion, intensified by her love for Enoch. Their relationship is as gentle as the autumn breeze, and complemented by DP Harris Savides' soft, pastel-toned photography, employing beautiful oranges and browns, it becomes genuinely absorbing.
Lew's screenplay also eschews the current wise-beyond-their-years kid cliché by imagining the stock source-of-wisdom character as Hiroshi (Ryo Kase), the ghost of a Japanese kamikaze pilot. What's interesting about the character is the normality with which he is introduced to the story (a game of battleships, which is not revenge for Nagasaki), and how rounded his emotional arc becomes. It's upon hearing about Hiroshi that most people decide Restless isn't for them, but he allows for vital plot information to be addressed in dialogue and for that act to feel natural and carry emotional weight. Annabel's sister, Elizabeth (Schuyler Fisk), could also have been a deeply annoying character, but instead she grounds the drama and provides the film's voice of reason, raising an eye to Enoch's gloomy antics. Rather than existing to add an extraneous layer of kook, which I think is the impression left by the trailer, Hiroshi and Lizzie act as a dramatic focus for the askew leads.
A final note for the film's soundtrack, which is a haunting mixtape of Sufjan Stevens, Pink Martini and Nico, with Danny Elfman's gently strumming score also recalling Carl Orff's classic Gassenhauer theme (famous from Terrence Malick's Badlands, 1973). What all of this music has in common is a scratchy, nostalgic ambience, ensuring that the film's atmosphere is heightened and somewhat timeless - an idea also complemented by Enoch and Annabel's anachronistic dress sense. It's the music which really carries us along Restless' hazy stream, much like the songs of Cat Stevens did in Harold And Maude. Indeed, rather than coming off as a pale imitation of Ashby's film, Restless feels like a perfect companion piece - and it's a double bill I'd recommend this Valentine's...
Unfortunately there's no word from Sony about a Blu-Ray release, but this DVD's tech specs are satisfactory, and both image and sound are presented well. Extras are solid, comprising five back-slapping (but charming) featurettes, deleted scenes, and most interestingly Van Sant's silent re-imagining of Restless - after wrapping each scripted scene the director also shot a silent take, allowing the actors to communicate entirely through gesture. Diegetic noise and that mixtape soundtrack are kept intact, with the plot progressed through inter-titles - THE FOLLOWING SCENE: Wherein Enoch And Annie discuss funeral etiquette and Enoch learns that Annie volunteers with kids who have cancer. It's not entirely sucessful, mainly because the film's most poignant scenes revolve around dialogue - Hiroshi's letter, for example, which is entirely absent here - but it's a charming and interesting experiment nonetheless, rounding out a solid and bargain-priced little package.
Restless floats onto DVD on February 13th. This review can originally be found at Flickfeast.