Smells like teen spirits dealing with grief in Van Sant’s latest
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
Enoch (Henry Hopper) attends funerals and memorial services of people he’s never met; you can spot him a mile off. He’s wearing the suitably hipster black suit with a pocket chain, his blunt blond cut just so, and his hangdog expression is so emo; he’s actually closer in spirit to the original goth stylings of the ‘80s (New Order, Depeche Mode, The Cure). He also hangs out with Hiroshi Takahashi (Ryo Kase), a deceased kamikaze pilot from World War II. They mill about around railroad tracks or sometimes they play Battleship — Hiroshi happens to be quite good, always able to find and sink Enoch’s battleships, funny?
Suddenly, Enoch encounters someone, you know, the girl, his opposite number. Cute with her own blunt cut, blunter maybe to accentuate her high cheekbones and long neck and those adorable brown eyes that have seen too much life, but haven’t gone all cynical because she’s too smart for that. She’s too in touch with her feelings to need a shrink and is just too … to ever find love and happiness with just any old boy. Oh, right, her name is Annabel Cotton (Mia Wasikowska) and she’s got terminal cancer, as well as a formerly promiscuous sister named Elizabeth (Schuyler Fisk) who has given up her wicked ways to take care of Annabel and their depressed and likely alcoholic mother Rachel (Lusia Strus).
So, Enoch and Annabel hook up and wander through a series of cute, arch situations, falling in love as they bravely and quite nobly refuse to let any of this put a damper on their love and their desire to live this short life to the fullest. It all sounds so perfect and ironic, and contained in its own set of air quotes, doesn’t it?
That’s Gus Van Sant. This is just the kind of thing he does when he’s not trolling around in either maudlin mainstream melodrama (of the guilty pleasure variety if it’s either Good Will Hunting or Finding Forrester) or diving headfirst into the alternative independent murk (Gerry, Elephant, Last Days). Somehow, he mines so far beneath the underneath that he strikes the core of human emotion, especially the disaffected (Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho) that most indie purveyors wouldn’t know anything about if it weren’t for his work.
The thing is though, Restless isn’t one of those films. It is cute and it knows it. He’s playing the quirks not to offer a reflection into some aspect of this life that we’ve never seen before, but because he knows we will want to believe it’s hip and different. And yet, after about a half hour of wandering around with Enoch and Annabel, damned if we don’t start to feel something for them. We know that he’s not quite as strong as she is and that no matter how adorable they are together, this dream isn’t going to last. She’s going to die and Enoch is going to learn that harsh lesson that he needs to learn in order to move on to the next phase of his life. We know, we know.
But only a heartless, brainless zombie wouldn’t respond to these two quirks in search of characters. Hopper has none of the dangerous edge of his father’s late career shenanigans. He is a boy out of time, looking for the ‘80s and there’s not a DeLorean in sight to take him back from this future. There is a bit of a shock for Wasikowska as well, who has been so precociously adult and alert as a wounded teen gymnast (In Treatment) and as Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. She’s still too youthful to settle into the wisdom of her eyes, but it will come soon enough, as death does. Right, Gus?
He’s the true restless spirit here, in limbo, waiting for darkness to descend once again.
Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com.