Even those of us who have admired GusVan Sant’s very personal, minimalist films (or at least some of them) as well as his more popular ones might be inclined to draw the line at “Restless.” Its subject—grieving over the death of loved ones—is hardly trivial. But the treatment goes so far to avoid pretentiousness that the picture becomes whimsically lightweight, even trivial instead. And yet Van Sant brings too little of his idiosyncratic style to the party. The result is a film that falls midway between the director’s conventional films and his more experimental ones, and while not horrible, it might make you a little restless yourself.
Henry Hopper (yes, son of the late Dennis) plays Enoch, one of those quirky teen loners more apt to exist on the page than in the real world. Mourning the death of his parents in an auto crash that he survived, Enoch dresses in black and goes to the funerals of people he doesn’t know, clearly in search of some emotional closure. He also has a spectral companion, the ghost of a Japanese kamikaze pilot named Hiroshi (Ryo Kase), with whom he often plays the board game Battleship.
During one of his funeral trips, Enoch bumps into Annabel (Mia Wasikowska), an effervescent girl his age who, we eventually learn, is terminally ill, though like so many fictional characters in that condition she doesn’t exhibit signs of serious debilitation until very late. Before long they’re hanging out together, taking unaccustomed risks and engaging in made-up death scenes that recall the children’s unusual modes of play in Rene Clement’s masterpiece “Jeux interdits,” but achieve little of that film’s power and poignancy.
Clearly Annabel (the choice of names dictated, perhaps, by reference to Poe’s Annabel Lee) is the doomed innocent who rescues Enoch from his wallow in grief and, by coming to terms with her own demise, enables him to move beyond his emotional paralysis. It’s a scenario that might have been played for soapoperatic pathos, but what Van Sant is aiming for is a far more gentle, charming vibe, though he does go for the tear ducts toward the close. That the result is as engaging as it is, is a tribute to his relative lightness of touch.
It’s also testimony to the likable performances of the leads. Hopper exhibits an easygoing manner that keeps Enoch from mere caricature, though the scenes that require him to turn angrily dramatic (like a visit to Annabel’s doctor, who’s done all he can do to help her) don’t have the intended weight. And Wasikowska nicely conveys Annabel’s ethereal fragility and good humor, without descending into bathos. Kase’s deadpan geniality makes Hiroshi a friendly ghost indeed.
Technically the picture is extremely modest, but Harris Savides’ cinematography gives the images an appropriate glow, and the score—consisting of Danny Elfman’s background music interlaced with an eclectic collection of pop songs—reflects the picture’s quirky nature. In the end the pleasant performances of Wasikowska and Hopper and Van Sant’s unforced style keep “Restless” from turning into a maudlin movie-of-the-week. But they’re not enough to give it much depth. It’s the rare off-kilter tearjerker that isn’t crudely mawkish, but isn’t particularly touching or insightful either—which makes it a minor entry in the director’s canon.