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Restless: Live Like You Were Dying

by Ethan Alter September 16, 2011 12:27 pm
<i>Restless</i>: Live Like You Were Dying

Since striking box-office gold with 1998's Good Will Hunting, Gus Van Sant has split his time between the kinds of small-scale indie experiments that launched his career (think titles like My Own Private Idaho, Gerry and Paranoid Park) and more mainstream fare pitched at a wide audience (Finding Forrester, Milk). His latest film, Restless, is a well-meaning, but wildly uneven attempt to offer moviegoers the best of both worlds. Written by novice screenwriter Jason Lew after apparent marathon viewings of Hal Ashby's 1971 classic Harold & Maude, the narrative follows the romance that blossoms between a pair of death-obsessed teenagers, Enoch (Henry Hopper, son of the recently deceased Dennis) and Annabel (Mia Wasikowska). Both of them have good reason to be fascinated by the great beyond: Enoch's parents were killed in a car crash that almost claimed his life as well. Annabel, meanwhile, has been diagnosed with terminal cancer and, in the best case scenario, will only be walking and talking for three more months. In other words, this isn't the most convenient time for her to strike up a new relationship. Viewed another way though, maybe the timing is just right.

Like young Harold and his septuagenarian love interest Maude before him, Annabel and Enoch meet each other for the first time at a funeral. She's supposed to be there, while he's gatecrashing his second or third service that day. Annabel immediately wants to know more about this mysterious, perpetually sad-eyed kid, but he resists her advances, reluctant to allow a new person into his tiny orbit, which is currently only populated by his aunt and guardian Mabel (Jane Adams) and the ghost of a World War II-era Japanese Kamikaze pilot, Hiroshi (Ryō Kase). But in true manic pixie dream girl fashion, Annabel's zest for life in the face of death inevitably breaks down the walls he's constructed around himself. But now that he's at last found someone new to love, he can't bear the thought of losing her too and the thoughts and the same interests and feelings that drew them together suddenly threaten to push them apart.

Considering the somber subject matter, it's no shock that Van Sant and Lew attempt to keep the film's tone light... well, as light as this kind of premise will allow anyway. I'll issue a general warning now: those viewers with a low tolerance for tweeness and earnest sentiment should probably steer clear of Restless, which shamelessly bats its puppy-dog eyes at you for some 90 minutes, all but begging for your affection. My natural response to this kind of aggressive cutesiness is generally to look for the nearest exit, but I found myself easing into Restless as it went along, thanks both to Van Sant's low-key directorial style -- which thankfully doesn't attempt to match the script's more fantastical elements with equally fantastical visual flourishes -- and Wasikowska's deeply felt performance that manages to move her character past the clichés on the page. I might have given myself completely over to the film had Van Sant cast a stronger actor as her co-star. While he bears a striking physical resemblance to his father, the younger Hopper lacks the same charismatic presence onscreen. He walks through the movie with the same dour expression on his face in each scene and his emotional outbursts come across more as typical adolescent petulance than genuinely raw grief. If you can't believe in Enoch and Annabel's relationship, you ultimately can't believe in Restless. Count me in as a reluctant unbeliever.

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