$12.50 ticket on a scale of $0 to $13.50
Any picture that tries to be all things to all people is in for tough sledding. In the case of Gus Van Sant-helmed “Restless,” the result is the film equivalent of an Olympic ski race. Pic is at once romantic comedy, weeper, drama, coming-of-age fable, and ghost story. What’s more, pic treads well trod ground, notably in the 1976 telemovie, “Griffin and Phoenix: A Love Story,” starring Peter Falk and Jill Clayburgh. It also borrows elements of “Harold and Maude” (1971). It does so largely without significant star power. The bar is set pretty high.
Portland, Oregon, teenager Enoch Brae (Henry Hopper) is a funeral crasher. In the opening reel — at a funeral — he encounters Annabelle Cotton (Aussie thesp Mia Wasikowska), an utterly charming, gamine, teen who revels in nature studies, 1960s chic, and the occasional “Annie Hall” look, mostly in the hats. Her closely cropped hair is an immediate hint to plot’s underlying tragedy, but Annabelle exudes enough buoyancy to throw off even the most seasoned film-goer. She certainly throws off Enoch, who, at first, spurns her advances, until she rescues him from being rudely ejected from a funeral they both crashed — separately.
The inevitable friendship blossoms. Other than being loners and having a thing about death, they seem to be polar opposites. Enoch’s undercurrent of anger, stubbornness, and irritability is the perfect counterpoint to the upbeat Annabelle. Every now and then it erupts, and she brings him back to earth with ease. She is infatuated with Darwin, the natural world, life, and death. She also has an infectious sense of adventure, which quickly cracks Enoch’s shell.
Exposition, which involves revelations, is seamlessly woven into plot without flashbacks, a neat trick more filmmakers should learn. Kudos to scribe Jason Lew. Action takes place in the fall and early winter of one year in the present day, and in that time it is revealed that Enoch’s parents were killed in an automobile crash with a drunk driver, that Enoch spent three months in a coma as a result, and that he holds unexpressed hatred for his late parents (for abandoning him) and for his aunt Mabel (Jane Adams) with whom he lives in a house that looks a lot like The Munsters’ residence at 1313 Mockingbird Lane. He blames aunt Mabel for his parents’ fatal trip to Seattle. They went there to see her accept a literary award.
He also has a ghost (think “Harvey”), which may or may not be real depending on one’s point of view. To their credit Van Sant and Lew leave it to auds. The ghost is a young Japanese kamikaze pilot, Ryo Kase as Hiroshi Takahashi, who succeeded in his mission. Hiroshi spends most of pic dressed in his pilot’s uniform and is either sent from Heaven to guide Enoch or is Enoch’s imaginary companion, again depending on one’s point of view. One of pic’s best sight gags has Hiroshi accompanying Annabelle and Enoch on Halloween — Enoch is also dressed as a kamikaze while Annabelle emerges as a very attractive Geisha.
Special effects are few, simple, and effective. Hiroshi appears and disappears. So does his final letter to his girlfriend, written in 1945, which he never sent. It is in Japanese, so despite a couple of tight shots of it, non-Japanese speakers will have no idea what it says until he reads it aloud in English.
Pic even offers a few surprises.
However, the nature of its underlying drama is not one of them — unless auds are not paying attention to clues. Annabelle has a malignant brain tumor. Within pic’s first half-hour it is revealed to her, to her overly-protective sister Elizabeth (Schuyler Fisk), to her alcoholic mother (Lusia Strus), and to Enoch that all the treatments have failed and that her condition is terminal. The docs give her three months.
If ever anyone had a right to “The Bucket List” it’s a beautiful, charming, brilliant teenage girl with three months to live. Annabelle is going to make the most of every moment. Again to filmmakers’ credit, protagonists at first go at their remaining time together with brio. This is no “Love Story.” Eventually, however, the “Boy meets girl; boy gets girl despite being a jerk; boy loses girl because he can’t stop being a jerk, and …” well, you know the rest, scenario has to play out. And it does, with a welcome twist involving some role-playing gone awry. Who knew that two teenagers, one terminally ill, could out role-play the protagonists of “Fool for Love”?
This leads to one of pic’s darker reels, in which Enoch goes into crisis, acts out his anger, and Annabelle’s illness becomes more acute. It also introduces one of pic’s few flaws. Death from a brain tumor is not as smooth a transition as Annabelle’s. The illness causes seizures. Annabelle has on. It also robs the patient of motor function, feeling, and eventually cognition and personality. Annabelle goes just a tad too glamorously to be believed, but it makes the plot work (think “Dark Victory”) and sets up the penultimate scene, in which Hiroshi returns (after disappearing following a pivotal confrontation with Enoch). Hiroshi returns dressed like the Japanese foreign minister who signed the surrender documents in 1945 aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay — complete with morning coat and top hat. The outfit looks a little comical on a teenager, but heck, he is a ghost. Maybe the tailors on the far side are not as good as their earthly counterparts. It is the first scene where Annabelle can actually see Hiroshi. This is her Josephine Hull moment.
We really don’t know if he has come back for Annabelle because, as he says, “It’s a long trip. I though she might like the company,” or if his appearance at her death bead is just Enoch’s imaginary way of coping with the loss of Annabelle.
Either way, it doesn’t matter. Auds can take “Restless” for what they bring to it. It is a well made film, which is touching to watch, features attractive protagonists who convey volumes in a glance. It boasts excellent lensing by Harris Savides, spot-on editing by Elliot Graham, equally good production design by Anne Ross, and a sound track that leaves little to be desired. Van Sant clearly has a fine touch with actors and crew. Savides shoots in a slightly washed-out, almost sepia tone. It is perfectly suited to the material. One or two lines of dialogue are tough to understand, but other than that the sound recording is better than average.
Pic’s dénouement, which follows Hiroshi’s final bow, is at once poignant, understated, and a little funny. It is neatly tied to the opening reel, and it is a wonderful example of how less really can be more in film.
“Restless” carries a PG-13 rating and runs a very fast 93 minutes. Nothing in it should offend anyone.