Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
October 2011


The lighter side of death

Alternately beguiling and ungainly, 'Restless' is a minor entry in a great filmmaker's career

Sony Pictures Classics
Director: Gus Van Sant
Screenplay: Jason Lew
Starring: Henry Hopper, Mia Wasikowska, Schuyler Fisk, Ryo Kase, Lusia Strus and Jane Adams
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 31 minutes
Now playing in limited release
(out of four)

For once, the one-sheet poster says all that really needs to be said about a film. Go ahead - take a look at it. If it looks like this will be a twee romance centering on one character who is obsessed with death, and another who is dying . . . well, that's exactly what Restless is. The poster is practically a self-parody.

If it looks like a film so lightweight, a soft breeze could knock it over and blow it away - well, you should see the other poster. It shows a soft breeze practically blowing one of the characters away. This, too, is fitting. Even the characters' names are too cute - Enoch Brae and Annabel Cotton? For real?

And yet Restless is a film by the great Gus Van Sant, and even with such light material - not death in and of itself, but this approach to death, contextualized as a precocious backdrop to a precocious teen romance - he finds a way to make it better than we could reasonably expect.

And so he does, imbuing a casual sense of warmth and serenity around Enoch and Annabel (Henry Hopper and Mia Wasikowska, respectively) that overrides what may have been an insufferable courtship. Instead, it's frank, unassuming and thoughtful - to a point, at least. I guess it should come as no surprise, given the film's temperament, that it's ultimately unprepared for its own seriousness. Our lovesick teens can be as preoccupied with their own obsessions and with each other as they want to be, but eventually the darkness they've tried to avoid confronting demands attention.

And that's when Restless, already teetering on the line between charming and cloying, loses itself - and the audience. A handful of scenes depicting true conflict are jarring in their clumsiness and lack of emotional conviction. Hopper has an understated attitude and wistfulness that reminds me of James Franco, but he's unable to really land the dramatic moments that would theoretically justify the film's near-perpetual levity. The scenes themselves play awkwardly, and Hopper doesn't help matters.

Is it, I wondered, that the film (or the characters, or both) simply doesn't understand anger as well as it should? Is it too absorbed in its daydream for it to understand the stakes? Because the anger, once it comes to the fore, is very real - or should be. But it doesn't feel like it. I've seen Van Sant tackle all manner of potentially unwieldy emotional balancing acts, and rarely (if ever) have they played so clumsily as do three or four crucial scenes in Restless.

For me, that's where it lost me. There remains a lot to admire (much more, I think, than many are giving it credit for) - from the earthy naturalism of Harris Savides' underexposed cinematography, which gives the film its intimacy, to the performance of Wasikowska as the cancer-stricken Annabel. And yet it can only hide behind its casual hipness for so long before the pitfalls of the script (and even the premise - did I mention Enoch is regularly visited by the ghost of a Japanese kamikaze pilot?) reveal themselves all too clearly.

Still, it's an interesting film that I'll certainly see again - in part because of its failures. And because Van Sant is a personal favorite of mine; I'm one of the few who consider Gerry an absolute masterpiece, and feel the same way about the similarly underrated Paranoid Park - not to mention My Own Private Idaho, Elephant, Drugstore Cowboy, Milk and To Die For.

With Restless, he continues an exploration of death that spans much of his career - especially in recent years. It's a subject he's often dealt with in magnificently abstract form, but this time - in the service of a love story that at times reeks of too much adolescent naivete - it feels all too frivolous.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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