I was surprised to learn recently that director Gus Van Sant has a new movie out on DVD and Blu-ray from Sony Picture Classics called Restless, featuring Henry “Son of Dennis” Hopper and Mia Wasikowska from Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland as a pair of star-crossed teenage lovers attempting to balance the awkward fumblings of a first romance with the painful realities of terminal brain cancer. Considering Van Sant’s track record, it’s pretty weird that his latest release has been getting so little press – his last film, Milk, was a darling of the 2009 Oscars, and was voted AFI’s Movie of the Year. Despite good intentions and plenty of atmospheric intensity, Restless suffers mainly from a tedious and highly derivative screenplay, drawing heavily on the conventions of a filmic subgenre that’s already badly overplayed and laden with trite melodrama.
Hopper and Wasikowska play Enoch and Annabel, a pair of wayward youths who serendipitously meet one day at a memorial service – like Bud Cort in the similarly plotted Harold and Maude, Enoch likes to attend funerals recreationally, even though he doesn’t know the deceased. Annabel and Enoch befriend each other, and Annabel soon reveals that she is suffering from an untreatable brain tumor with only three months to live. The rest of the movie chronicles their brief relationship, with Enoch struggling to come to terms with Annabel’s condition, and Annabel mostly projecting a childlike, innocent aloofness about it.
The visual and aural trappings of the film are seductively well balanced. It was shot in Oregon and is filled with beautifully composed shots of golden, grassy fields, decaying bridges, and rainy suburban neighborhoods. Danny Elfman collaborated on the score, and although it’s not as bombastic as the work he’s best known for, the soft warmth of the film’s soundtrack is never cloying. The disc includes a silent version of the film with title cards (apparently an experimental afterthought, resulting from a frequent conceit of Van Sant’s calculated to enhance non-verbal aspects of his actors’ performance), a context which makes Wasikowska’s antique wardrobe, and many of the film’s other exaggerated mannerisms appear to make slightly more sense. The dialogue and characterization are so forced, however, and the plotting so aimless, that it’s impossible to really identify with the movie at all on a narrative or personal level. All of its themes are awkward retreads of familiar stories and character arcs that were mostly overwrought to begin with, and the lackadaisical execution only makes it worse.
The disc boasts a respectable number of standard, arbitrary behind-the-scenes mini-docs about the making of the film, the development of the characters, and the process of getting the project produced. The weirdest thing about the movie, for me, is that it was co-produced by Bryce Dallas Howard, but that’s just my own personal viewpoint. Restless is hardly Van Sant’s greatest achievement, and it probably deserved to go straight to Blu-ray despite his honorable involvement, but for whatever it’s worth, it did make me really want to watch Harold and Maude again.