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By Meredith Alloway · September 19, 2011
Indeed, this movie made me feel restless. I was loving it, hating it, and constantly wavering in between. The gentle, fatal young love the film explores makes it both transcendent and abysmal, but never at the same time. Director Gus Van Sant has had a blatant common denominator in the majority of his work over the last ten years: death. Approaching it unabashedly in Elephant, and brutally in Paranoid Park, Van Sant takes a calmer approach this time around. But perhaps a film about a young girl dying of a brain tumor can only be so beautiful before the visage needs, for the sake of respecting and representing a terminal disease, to shatter. And it doesn’t.
Annabel Cotton (Mia Wasikoswka) first meets Enoch Brae (Henry Hopper) at a funeral. And right off the bat, she can tell he’s a faker. He goes to funerals for fun. The two wounded souls continue to have chance encounters, and eventually, they’re in the kind of love you can only have when you’re young: not a care in the world. As their relationship deepens and the story unravels, we realize these two birds in fact have cares and troubles. Annabel has a brain tumor and three months to live, while Enoch has suffered recently the tragedy of his parents’ death and his own resurrection from a three-month comma. And Enoch is best friends with a Japanese Kamikaze pilot from WWII…who is a ghost. These poor kids!
Except the film never, ever lets you feel sorry for them. And they themselves brush away any sign of pity. Enoch rarely speaks about how his tragedy has affected him and Annabel dismisses any mention of how terrible her situation is. Once they’re in the slew of love, running through the golden fields of Portland and making love in a forester’s cabin, they brush away anything morbid or grotesque. A sort of, “live life to the fullest” or “Live every day like it’s your last” outlook on things. But don’t you hate whenever anyone sincerely attempts to use that expression? It seems phony.
Restless premiered at Cannes this year and Van Sant discussed the film by explaining that Jason Lew, who wrote Resltess as his debut screenplay, “was trying to avoid the cancer, dying-person clichés and…wanted it to be about something that’s sometimes overlooked and to try to get out of the despair through youth. That was sort of our way of subverting it.” The older characters in the film including Annabel’s sister and Hiroshi (Ryo Kase), Enoch’s ghost-friend-mentor-protector, seem to be shouting the whole time, “But she’s dying!” And we feel it too. “Why are you frolicking about and reading about birds and bugs when you’re about to be dead?!?” But the film refuses to discuss those questions, and almost cowardly, answers, “because they’re young.” And this is where the hating and loving comes in. In one scene, Annabel places her hands over a flashlight, looks at Enoch and says, “this has the power to show you what you want most in the whole world.” She passes it to Enoch, and he slowly tilts the light onto her face. And as her dainty lips smile and he goes in to kiss her, your heart does swell. Damnit! Works every time. But the two lovers are floating so high above reality, the film can’t touch down on any true moments regarding the terror of death. And when they do... the moments are ruined due to the awful acting.
Oh no…you can always feel them when they’re about to come… the shouting and crying scenes. And in this film, they deliver right on cue and leave you with nothing but that icky feeling where you just want to cover your eyes and tell them to stop embarrassing themselves. Bad acting. Hopper is magnetizing (get ready for a new star) until those emotional moments come in. He is brooding and absolutely adorably quirky, headed straight for the cover of Nylon magazine, until he’s asked to confront the serious issues of his character. The problem lies in the fact that the young actor, in his first feature role ever, does not yet have the capability to execute and communicate such a high stakes role. He needs a good acting coach and a few more years in the biz, and he’ll be fine. Mia, with ivory skin and a Farrow trim, remains nothing but lovely the entire film. But when you have cancer, lovely becomes unrealistic and we long to see her in pain, even just so we can be reminded that underneath her gentle smile, she’s in a great deal of it. This is a problem in the script, but Mia makes the most, grounding her frivolity in a stubbornness to avoid her reality.
In the end, the film is a moving Urban Outfitters catalog. Everything is hip: the actors, the design, the outlook on life! But we’d expect more from Gus Van Sant. He was spoiled with actors like River Pheonix and Sean Penn. Perhaps if Restless didn’t rely so heavily on the actors and more so on the story, or the actors delivered phenomenal performances, Restless wouldn’t be so unrelentingly forgettable.