Restless (2011): Van Sant’s Doomed Romance, Starring Mia Wasikowska

Van Sant’s “Restless” served as the opening night of the 2011 Cannes Film Festival’s secondary series, Certain Regard, which means it was not good enough for the Main Competition, where his previous pictures had premiered.  An artistic disappointment, and simplistic to a fault, this romantic melodrama of doomed youngsters lacks the nuance, dramatic tension, and bravura visual style expected by now of Van Sant.  Anything but what its title implies, “Restless” unfolds as a static, inert tale about youth facing untimely mortality. The film fails to leave much impact, because its vision and scope are limited.  There are only two characters, and there is no subtext or subtlety. “Restless” might be the most conventional picture that Van Sant has made thus far.  (“Even Cowgirls” was an artistic and commercial flop, but it was not banal or routine).

Mia Wasikowska, one of the most gifted and busiest actress around (she had appeared back-to-back in “Alice in Wonderland,” “The Kids Are All Right,” and “Jane Eyre”) plays Annabel Cotton, a terminal cancer patient with a deeply felt love of life and special penchant for the natural world, specifically water birds. She is contrasted with Enoch Brae (Henry Hopper, son of Dennis), a youngster who has dropped out of school (and life) after an accident claimed his parents’ lives.  Elegantly dressed in white shirt, black tie and jacket, Enoch is a funeral junkie obsessed with death; he spends his time attending one memorial service after another.

When these outsiders meet by chance at a funeral, they find an unexpected common ground in their experience of the world.  For Enoch, this (fantasy) world includes his best friend Hiroshi (Ryo Kase), who happens to be the ghost of a Kamikaze fighter pilot. For Annabel, it involves an admiration of Charles Darwin and strong interest in how other creatures live.  The last thing on Enoch’s mind is to befriend or court a girl, and so he rejects with cynicism (actually self-protection) Annabel’s efforts to get closer to him. However, upon learning of Annabel’s imminent death, Enoch offers his company through her last days. (The film could have been easily titled “Last Days”).  What begins as a “rescue” mission on Enoch’s part turns into an irreverent abandon that tempts fate and death itself.

It soon becomes clear that Enoch and Annabel are experiencing for the first time true love; in her case, it’s also her last love.  The film’s stronger scenes evoke memorable, eccentric screen romances, such as “Harold and Maude,” in which the protagonists, an older woman and suicidal youngster also meet at a cemetery and are obsessed with death.   As conceived by the scribe Jason Lew, other scenes contain cute lines that belong to a schmaltzy picture like the 1970 blockbuster “Love Story.” As their love for each other grows, the realities of the surrounding world are closing in on them. Daring, childlike, and incurably romantic, the two bravely face what life has in store for them.  With some playfulness and originality, the misfits go through the motions of pain, anger, and loss, trying to make (and then live by) their own rules. Inevitably, their journey begins to collide with the unstoppable march of time as Annabel’s condition deteriorates.

It’s hard to see what attracted Van Sant to the material as he doesn’t bring any particularly illuminating insights to the tale, or to its central characters.  In theory, the movie is meant to be a hymn to life, a celebration of the redemptive power of love, but in practice, most of what unfolds on screen is overly familiar from other, better tales. The film’s problems reside in its conception and writing by first-timer Jason Lew, who was an NYU classmate of Bryce Dallas Howard (director Ron Howard’s daughter), who is the film’s producer.  The episodic screenplay betrays its origins as a collection of short stories, which were then developed into a stage play. Van Sant and Lew isolate their protagonists from their surroundings.  Enoch has two scenes with his aunt, played by the gifted character actress Jane Adams (“Happiness”), who’s totally wasted. For her part, Annabel has a family, but her interactions with her sister and mother are limited, too.

Lacking subtlety and depth, “Restless” gives the impression of an unfinished screenplay and a movie that might have been executed too quickly, without fully developing its dramatic potential.  That said, Van Sant should be credited for refusing to make either a schmaltzy Hollywood picture like the crass and cute “Love Story,” or a sentimental TV Movie of the Week to play on the Oxygen Channel. The critical response to the Sony Picture Classics release was decidedly negative.  After a limited distribution in major urban centers, “Restless” was put to rest as an immediately forgettable work from an otherwise distinguished director.