Restless

Movie Information

The Story: Doomed romance between a troubled young man and a girl with a brain tumor that plays nothing like the cliche that this suggests. The Lowdown: A very special, very unusual, very good romantic fantasy that -- despite superficial similarities to other films -- has its own distinct identity. Sad and touching without being maudlin and off-putting.
Score:

Genre: Romantic Fantasy Drama
Director: Gus Van Sant (Milk)
Starring: Henry Hopper, Mia Wasikowska, Ryo Kase, Schuyler Fisk, Lusia Strus, Jane Adams
Rated: PG-13

I’m going against the critical tide on Gus Van Sant’s Restless—though at least I’ve got Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun Times) and A.O. Scott (New York Times) for traveling companions in defense of the film. I can’t get away from the feeling that a lot of the negativity surrounding the movie is of the knee-jerk variety that stems from a surface similarity to Hal Ashby’s classic Harold and Maude (1971). Yes, Restless is about two people who meet at funerals, and, yes, this leads to an odd romance, but that’s where the connection ends. Plus, there’s not a 60-year age difference between the two (a key subversive aspect of the earlier film) and the reasons this pair goes to funerals are quite different. And so is the movie.

The film concerns a young man, Enoch Brae (Henry Hopper—Dennis’ son), with very little of a life and whose only friend is Hiroshi Takahasi (Ryo Kase, Tokyo!), the (imaginary?) ghost of a kamikaze pilot, with whom he plays Battleship and throws rocks at freight trains. His parents were killed in a car crash and he’s being taken care of by an aunt he insists on calling Mabel (Jane Adams, The Brave One)—and keeps at arm’s length. His only outlet appears to be attending the funerals of strangers—the reason for which is implicitly offered in the course of the film. It’s at one of these that he first meets Annabel Cotton (Mia Wasikowska)—who it turns out attends funerals for reasons of her own—but he wants nothing to do with her until she comes to his rescue at a later funeral where the funeral director (Christopher D. Harder) is about to bust him for funeral crashing. There follows an odd relationship—one that is colored both by Enoch’s past and by Annabel’s limited future, since she has a brain tumor and a projected three months to live.

This could have been awfully gooey material. It certainly has all the earmarks of a bad romantic novel. In fact, it can in some ways be read as a variation on Love Story—set 40 years later. It also could have descended into being one of Van Sant’s more impenetrable—so-called “difficult”—films like Paranoid Park (2007) with its interminable fascination in finding imaginary depths in shallow youth. Fortunately, Restless—thanks in large part to the three leads—manages to fall into neither trap. In the realm of Van Sant’s odd filmography, I’d put it somewhere between Milk (2008) and My Own Private Idaho (1991) in terms of accesibility—though it may fall a bit short of those in terms of success.

What we have here is a sweet, sad little movie that may have its roots in other films, but is finally its own. It’s a rare work in that it manages to romanticize death and de-romaticize it at the same time. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a film that pulled this off so well, nor one that so manages to be about death and dying without becoming dreary or mawkish. It moves you without undue manipulation or cheap pathos—and it’s often moving in ways you don’t expect. The construct of Hiroshi could have been a senseless affectation, but the character (who gets the film’s sharpest lines) prevents that—operating as friend, conscience, advisor and as a friend who is jealous of and threatened by the prospect of this new romance. He also represents a basic conflict within Enoch’s mind—proof of a life after this one, something that Enoch would otherwise have his own reasons for not believing.

This was obviously (just look at the original poster) originally intended to get a wide Columbia Pictures release, but later relegated to the art-house treatment through Sony Pictures Classics. That was probably wise. This is a very specialized film that was never destined to be a huge hit, and it would have been lost in wide release. But it is also a very special film that deserves a chance with discerning viewers. Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and brief sensuality.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

9 thoughts on “Restless

  1. Melissa

    My 16yo daughter swears Gus Van Sant is a film genius, and every movie he makes should be seen repeatedly. In fact, I have no idea how many times she’s seen Milk. I’ll be curious to see what she thinks of Restless.

  2. Ken Hanke

    Don’t let it wait too long. I haven’t seen the bookings yet, but I’ll be very surprised if this is still playing come Friday. Odd, considering the extremely high no. of hits this review had.

  3. Ken Hanke

    Well, I know that Mr. Xanadon’t went to see this last night, ‘cuz I met him at the theater. The fact that he has not posted suggests either that he was not enthused, or that he actually has a life.

  4. Xanadon't

    Well, I know that Mr. Xanadon’t went to see this last night, ‘cuz I met him at the theater. The fact that he has not posted suggests either that he was not enthused, or that he actually has a life.

    Ha, actually sometime while I was watching the movie and my girlfriend was busy studying, her cat knocked a glass of water over on to our wireless keyboard and temporarily shorted the damn thing out. True story. Things seem to have dried out now…

    Good to meet you last night Ken! Hope to see more of ya from time to time at special screenings and whatnot but, like I mentioned, tending bar 5 nights out of the week often fouls up the chance to do other cool stuff.

    As for Restless, I’m happy I caught it. The first ten minutes had me questioning the decision, but I quickly and effortlessly warmed up to the film quite a lot. I was surprised that I wasn’t more explicitly moved by it, but I certainly admired it.

  5. Ken Hanke

    “Girlfriend’s cat” — that one’s got whiskers. And so, I presume, does the cat, come to think of it.

    Actually, I don’t think the film meant to move you in any tear-jerking way. I think it’s crafted to do something different. The whole thing is wistful and sad without being an assault on the tear ducts, which I think is what I like about it.

    Seems to me your job is getting in the way of your moviegoing, which is very unfortunate.

  6. Xanadon't

    No sooner did I send off that message than I began to chuckle at myself, feeling like the boy whose dog ate his homework.

    Oh, I 100% agree that the film wasn’t designed to “assault the tear ducts” and I appreciated that too. I was more moved in a somewhat opposite direction, admiring the sort of wistfulness of youth aspect that really shines in scenes like the “badminton montage” or the Halloween night play-acting scene in the woods.

    I guess what I mean is that it didn’t really feel like the type of film that will “stay with me” as you’ve often put it. But who knows, maybe over the next couple days my casual fondness for it will morph into something a bit stronger.

    Seems to me your job is getting in the way of your moviegoing, which is very unfortunate.

    Yep, it’s a major drawback, but in these times I consider myself fortunate to not only have a job that pays the bills, but one I happen to truly enjoy at that. The Jewish Film Festival (last May?) was nice in that I was able to catch a couple different afternoon screenings.

  7. Ken Hanke

    Yep, it’s a major drawback, but in these times I consider myself fortunate to not only have a job that pays the bills, but one I happen to truly enjoy at that.

    I wasn’t suggesting you quit it, merely making an observation. It’s unfortunate your nights off are rarely Tuesday or Thursday. (Of course, we do have that special ticketed showing of The Man Who Fell to Earth on Nov. 9, which is a Wednesday.)

    The Jewish Film Festival (last May?) was nice in that I was able to catch a couple different afternoon screenings.

    ActionFest and Qfest were good for that, too, though there’s something about Hobo with a Shotgun that just cries out to be seen at midnight. Perhaps one day we will do something that involves afternoonage. I’m not against the idea as such.

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