If you don’t look closely enough, it’s easy to mistake Gus Van Sant’s Restless for another American indie comedy. It has all the trappings of one, from the realistically good-looking leads to the dysfunctional families and the light-hearted treatment of heavy themes (death and parental abandonment, to be more specific). And the quirk. Oh my, the quirk. The main characters of Restless have so many quirks they would be right at home in a Wes Anderson movie. The whole film is actually infused with the same bittersweet atmosphere that permeates The Royal Tenenbaums or The Darjeeling Limited, though Restless offers a much more straightforward and traditional narrative, taking the form of a love story between two teenagers whose time together is limited.
Enoch and Annabel (with names like that, you’d half-expect them to be played by Paul Dano and Zooey Deschanel) meet at a funeral. Enoch (Henry Hopper) doesn’t know anyone there; he’s just crashing the ceremony. You see, Enoch is kind of obsessed with death. His parents died in a car accident, and he obviously has yet to get over it. So he lies on the ground and draws chalk outlines of his body, and attends strangers’ funerals just for kicks. Also, his best (and only) friend is the ghost of a young Japanese kamikaze pilot named Hiroshi (Ryo Kase) who was killed during World War II, and who’s conveniently learned to speak English in the years since his death and is a killer at the game “Battleship” (stands to reason, really). Enoch is outed as a funeral crasher by Annabel (Mia Wasikowska), who reasons that anyone who dresses all in black to go to a memorial service must have something to hide. Annabel’s idiosyncrasies are a little more low-key than Enoch’s: she’s a huge bird lover, seemingly spending all her free time learning the Latin name of every single bird species, and is the biggest Darwin fan you’ll find this side of an internet discussion board. Unfortunately, she also suffers from terminal cancer, and only has three months left to live (a cynic might add that she’s the prettiest and healthiest-looking cancer patient ever). Not that she lets it get her down; she seems to have accepted that she will die soon, and refuses to let that get in the way of her budding relationship with Enoch.
The screenplay, by Jason Lew, focuses likewise not on Annabel’s illness, but on her and Enoch’s love story. And despite the characters’ foibles and Annabel’s situation, the story remains mostly by-the-number, hitting all the notes and events you’d expect. Even so, it works surprisingly well, thanks to Van Sant’s light touch and in large part to Hopper and Wasikowska, utterly convincing as the two young lovers. The screenplay is also cleverer than most, with Lew making sure that what often comes out as forced and formulaic in most romantic movies feels organic and justified here. If Enoch and Annabel seem not to have any friends save for Hiroshi and Annabel’s sister Elizabeth (Schuyler Fisk), that has a lot to do with Enoch’s withdrawn personality and the fact that neither of them goes to school. And when they have the inevitable falling out, it’s not over some stupid misunderstanding but because Annabel is dying, which is tough enough to deal with even before you take into account Enoch’s earlier loss of his parents. Because of this, and of Lew’s knack for thinking up disarmingly charming situations, the story feels much more original than it has any right to. Though Annabel’s illness is thankfully not used for pathos, the screenplay does have its clumsy moments; when Enoch has his long overdue breakdown and takes a sledgehammer to his parents’ gravestone, it’s hard not to feel Lew and Van Sant are being a little heavy-handed.
More problematic is the fact that Annabel has no character arc whatsoever. In my review of Drive, I lamented the fact that both Irene and Blanche (the love interest and the accomplice, respectively) are little more than plot devices. Annabel fares a little better here, partly because she gets almost as much screen time as Enoch, partly because Wasikowska (quickly becoming one of my favorite young actresses) is so sweet and radiant, even as a cancer patient, that she manages to hide the fact that her character doesn’t really evolve at all. One can assume that she once struggled with the idea that she was to die at a very young age, but she has come to terms with it before the film even begins. That doesn’t leave much room for her character to grow; from a narrative point of view, she serves the same purpose as Hiroshi the ghost, namely, teaching Enoch the clichéd lesson that even if life does suck sometimes, you have to hang in there and ride it out. (Remember when the kid in Super 8 says basically the same thing to the monster that’s about to tear his face off? And when the point is very emphatically made again mere minutes later when the kid has to let go of his mother’s medallion in a close-up shot that’s held for what feels like ten minutes? Just in case you didn’t get it the first time around, I guess.) It’s quite telling that as soon as Enoch gets over the loss of his parents, Annabel exits the narrative along with Hiroshi. All that’s left for her to do is die so that Enoch can demonstrate his new acceptance of life’s hardships.
Perhaps I’m being a little harsh. Annabel’s condition and eventual death, which make any character development complicated, if not impossible, also help turn the teenage love story into a little more than just that. It’s a race against time for Annabel and Enoch; not to beat the unbeatable, but to find as much joy and comfort as they can in each other before it is too late. Restless, like so many of Van Sant’s movies, is above all a film about adolescence, about those stolen moments and about accepting that nothing lasts forever while still acting as if it did. If, like a teenager, it stumbles awkwardly at times, eventually the charm and sweetness (and Wasikowska’s smile) win out.