Van Sant’s wispy tale of the young in ‘Restless’
Gus Van Sant has directed more than his share of oddities over the years - the “Psycho’’ remake, the all-star desert koan that is “Gerry’’ - but rarely has he made a movie as limp as “Restless.’’ Is the title meant as a joke? A torpidly precious love story about death-obsessed adolescents, the film’s becalmed and embalmed in its own sensitive self-pity.
I guess to appreciate “Restless,’’ you have to be as young as the two main characters, Enoch Brae (Henry Hopper), an orphaned teenager who likes to crash strangers’ funerals, and Annabel Cotton (Mia Wasikowska), who is delicate and graceful and dying of whatever it is that killed Ali McGraw in “Love Story.’’ (The doctors call it brain cancer, but it’s really Movie Wasting Disease.) You also have to be young enough to have never seen “Harold and Maude,’’ the 1971 cult classic from which Jason Lew’s script for “Restless’’ cribs characters, attitudes - everything but the charm.
The young Hopper, in fact, eerily resembles the original Harold, Bud Cort, as much as he does his own father, the late Dennis Hopper. Enoch is thrashing about following his parents’ deaths in an auto accident, dressing in dark suits and haunting the fringes of other people’s sorrow. The character is as passive-aggressive as your average teenage boy, with or without the morbid fixation, but every now and then Hopper’s eyes narrow and you glimpse the bleak, ornery energy that made the father such an unpredictable screen presence. Maybe with time, but not this time.
Wasikowska, for her part, paints Annabel with as light a touch as possible, knowing that if she bore down, the whimsy would be unbearable. She’s been given a cropped haircut that renders her simultaneously chic and vulnerable - it’s the only visual cue that the character is ill - and the actress has an easy charisma that keeps reminding you of past movie gamines: Jean Seberg, the young Mia Farrow, Edie Sedgwick or, in one eerie sequence, Audrey Hepburn in negative. Like Hopper, Wasikowska will survive “Restless,’’ even if Annabel doesn’t.
I’m not necessarily talking about the cancer. Lew’s script features hive-inducing levels of quirk. Annabel is an amateur naturalist obsessed with memorizing the Latin names of seabirds; she worships Darwin and dresses in thrift-shop haute couture. Enoch’s best friend, Hiroshi (Ryo Kase), is the ghost of a WWII Japanese kamikaze pilot; even though no one else can see him, the two play classic boomer board games like “Operation’’ and - oh, the irony - “Battleship.’’ When Schuyler Fisk (Sissy Spacek’s daughter) shows up as Annabel’s hardheaded older sister, the character’s so blessedly normal you cling to her for dear life.
The director turns this twee up to 11, slowing the pace to a gentle crawl and folding in whispery Sufjan Stevens songs in case we forget what we’re supposed to be feeling. “Restless’’ has a mopey indie-cinema vibe, but it’s as calculated as they come. At no time do you feel the weird undertow of “Gerry’’ or the Kurt Cobain-inspired “Last Days,’’ two movies where Van Sant really does push at the boundaries of death and meaning. By comparison, this is just a game of funerary dress-up. I know what Maude would say about “Restless.’’ Unfortunately, I can’t print it.