Restless: Soft, Conventional Van Sant

The gifted Gus Van Sant is nothing if not an unpredictable director.  As a filmmaker, he’s been consistently attracted to the portraiture of American youth, usually working class youth—its confusion, alienation, disturbance.  In his best work (“My Own Private Idaho”), he has illuminated what it is to be an outsider, living in the periphery of dominant culture and the margins of mainstream society.

A regular presence at the Cannes Film Fest, Van Sant has won the 2002 top awars, the Palme d’Or for “Elephant.”  That picture could be considered the first segment of a trilogy, which includes “Last Days” and “Paranoid Park,” all of which were shown in the main competition at Cannes, and all of which displayed his distinctive vision and unique style.

It is therefore with great regret that I have to describe his latest effort, “Restless,” which served as the opener of the Cannes’ secondary series, Certain Regard series (probably because it was not good enough), as a mediocre effort at best, and an artistic disappointment at worst.  Simple to a fault, this romantic melodrama between two doomed youngsters lacks the nuance, dramatic tension, and bravura visual style we have come to expect from Van Sant.

“Restless” is anything but what its title suggests or implies.  The movie unfolds as a rather static, emotionally inert tale, which goes through the familiar motions of death and dying without leaving much of an impact.

Though the movie is well shot and well acted, it doesn’t help that its vision is limited and that there are only two characters. What you see on screen in “Restless” is what you get; there is no subtext, no subtlety.  As such, the movie might be the most conventional, borderline banal, picture that Van Sant has made in his 25-year career.

The gifted Mia Wasikowska, who may be the busiest actress this year (she appeared back to back in “Alice in Wonderland,” “The Kids Are All Right,” and most recently, “Jane Eyre”) plays Annabel Cotton, a beautiful and charming terminal cancer patient with a deep felt love of life and the natural world, specifically water birds.

Initially, she is contrasted with Enoch Brae (Henry Hopper, son of Dennis Hopper), a young man who has dropped out of school (and life), after an accident that had claimed the life of his parents. As a result, he has become a funeral junkie, who’s obsessed with death. Elegantly dressed in white shirt, black tie and jacket, he goes from one memorial service to another.

When these two outsiders meet by chance at a funeral, they find an unexpected common ground in their unique experiences 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 an interest in how other creatures live.

The last thing on Enoch’s mind is to befriend and court a girl, and so he rejects with a good deal of cynicism (actually self-protection) Annabel’s efforts to get closer to him. However, upon learning of Annabel’s imminent early passing, Enoch offers to help her go through her last days. What begins as sort of a “rescue” mission gradually turns into an irreverent abandon, tempting fate and even death itself.

It soon becomes clear that both Enoch and Annabel are experiencing their first true love; in her case, it’s also the last one. Clearly, some of their meetings evoke memorable eccentric romances, such as “Harold and Maude,” which must have inspired the writer, Jason Lew. Other scenes contain cute and cutesy lines that belong to a schmaltzy picture like the 1970 blockbuster “Love Story.”

As their unique 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. Fighting with playfulness and originality pain, anger, and ultimately loss the two misfits try to make (and live by) their own rules. Inevitably, though, their journey begins to collide with the unstoppable march of time as Annabel’s condition deteriorates.

It’s hard to see what precisely has attracted Van Sant to the material as he doesn’t bring any particularly illuminating insights to the tale or to the characters of its two protagonists. 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 not only overly familiar from numeorus other tales, but also pedestrain.

Most of the film’s problems reside in the conception and writing by first-timer Jason Lew, who was a classmate at NYU of Bryce Dallas Howard (the daughter of Ron Howard), who’s credited as a producer. The episodic screenplay betrays its origins as a collection of short stories and vignettes, which were then developed into a play.

Van Sant and Lew tend to isolate their prtagonists from their surrounding realities. Enoch has two scenes with his aunt, played by Jane Adams, who’s totally wasted. For her part, Annabel has a family, but her interactins 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 drmatic potential.

I have been a keen observer of Van Sant’s interestng career from its very beginnings, and for the sake of being fair, I would like to commend him for at least not making a schmaltzy Hollywood picture like the crass and cutesy “Love Story,” or a tear-jerking sentimental TV Movie of the Week.