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Restless

September 24, 2011
Restless

Gus Van Sant’s Restless wants to be a touching, running-out-of-time romance in the vein of Love Story. Unfortunately, it spends most of its time trying to make us feel sorry for a whiny, spoiled brat who just won’t stop feeling sorry for himself.

The brat is Enoch (Henry Hopper), whose parents died — and who was severely injured himself — in a car accident. Ever since then he’s devoted his life to morbidity, dropping out of school, talking to the ghost of a kamikaze pilot, Hiroshi (Ryō Kase), and crashing memorial services decked out in black suits with styles that haven’t been seen since the ’30s.

It’s at one of these events that he meets Annabel (Mia Wasikowska) who, as it turns out, has a malignant brain tumor and a matter of months to live. Over the qualms of her older sister (Schuyler Fisk) she and Enoch strike up a silver-screen romance.

I know that young love is heavily invested with Meaning, and Annabel could certainly use some. Still, there’s something oddly stilted and disjointed in the writing that I can’t quite put my finger on. I know that Wasikowska, at least, is better than this, so I’m left to conclude that it’s an intentional stylistic choice on the part of first-time writer Jason Lew. The dialogue feels either self-consciously unrealistic, or like the characters are even younger than they’re supposed to be; fourteen instead of sixteen or seventeen, and even that age would be a stretch for either actor to pull off.

But that much could be forgiven if it weren’t for the deeper structural problems. Death, here, is an abstraction at best; Annabel slips away by the end with barely so much as a headache. And it makes it difficult to see her as a real person, really dying, much less as one who could actually feel something about it and tell us. Love and Other Drugs at least gave us that much.

The result is that this isn’t a story about a girl dying; it’s a story about a boy coming to terms with death. The boy is the important one here, and the girl is a prop to draw him through the story. And having been a whiny, self-involved outsider I’m not really interested in or appreciative of that arc. Enoch needs to cowboy up and get on with his life, but I know that he won’t, at least not yet. Just because I understand him doesn’t mean I have to like him, or want to watch him.

Still, the movie does offer the requisite heartstring-tugs, and it’s hard not to tear up from time to time, even knowing it’s sappy and overwrought. Whatever it’s missing as a mortuary narrative, it manages to deliver the nostalgic sting of a doomed young love story. Wasikowska is still charming and adorable despite the awkward writing, and Hopper isn’t actively terrible, though he’s less than inspired at communicating bereavement, despite his own recent loss. On balance, though, I can’t say that this is the cancer-tearjerker to see this Oscar season.

Worth It: not really.
Bechdel Test: it comes close, but I have to say it fails.

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