RESTLESS (2011, directed by Gus Van Sant, 91 minutes, U.S.)
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC
For the life of me, I can’t figure out why this whimsical drama about teens whose lives are touched by death should be given the generic title Restless but it perfectly describes my anxiousness as I slowly accepted that this teen weepie wasn’t going to veer away from its simplistic, melodramatic course. It is only the name of director Gus Van Sant that stirred any optimism for a premise that sounds like a Lifetime Network weeper, but by the halfway mark it became obvious that the slumming Van Sant’s dreamy style is just the gift wrapping that producers Ron and Bryce Dallas Howard have chosen to dress up their cringe-inducing tale of fleeting romance. Not since his much-derided Finding Forrester (remembered for Sean Connery going gangsta and screaming “You The Man now, Dawg!”) has the formidable Van Sant delivered such an uninspired work-for-hire toss-off.
Drawing unflattering comparisons to Harold & Maude, Reckless introduces us to the disheveled teenaged Enoch (Henry Hopper, son of Dennis Hopper), a recent orphan who enjoys dressing up like Percy Shelley and attending funerals in his spare time. While being a fake mourner he meets the winsome Annabel Cotton (Mia Wasikowska from Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland), who is as alive as springtime itself despite harboring an inoperable brain tumor. In the three months they have together, you would be right to suspect that Annabel is going to teach Henry about embracing life while Henry is going to give Annabel the experience of first love. But who could have guessed that the gifted Van Sant would deliver the expected goods in such deadeningly predictable manner?
Van Sant was hobbled at the starting gate if he was going to stick to the script by first-timer Jason Lew (apparently a close college friend of Bryce Dallas Howard) With the subject of a young woman’s death being front and center in the story, you’d have to expect that Restless was going to look in the eye some hard-won truths about life and mortality. Instead we get endless scenes of the patient Annabel and the romantic Enoch as they talk to Enoch’s imaginary kamikaze pilot friend (Ryo Kase) and act out imaginary scenes of Annabel’s passing. They aren’t in love like teenagers, they’re in love like two sickly-sweet, precocious ten year-olds. Annabel’s tumor only leaves her looking more radiant as her destiny nears and Henry finally faces his own parents’ death in the final act’s teary finale. These weepy machinations have been cliché since the silent era and Lew’s achingly mundane script telegraphs every twist so even your grandmother won’t get lost.
It is disheartening to see Van Sant deliver such mediocrity after the career highpoints of 2007’s Paranoid Park and 2008’s Oscar-winning Milk. In Reckless Van Sant boils his style down to a cynical handful of gestures: overcast skies, fumblingly articulate teens with mussed hair, Harris Savides soft-edged photography, and a little Elliot Smith on the soundtrack. Van Sant fires every stylistic arrow in his quiver but he just can’t bring down the beast of boringness that is Restless’ relentlessly literal-minded script. Most ill-served are its stars, as Hopper and Wasikowska succeed admirably at being adorable ragamuffins. I found myself more concerned that these promising actors’ careers would overcome Van Sant’s lazy misfire than fretting any impending cinematic death.