Gus Van Sant is a hard filmmaker to categorize. He’s gone through phases where he’s made darling indie classics, Oscar Bait, remakes, High School drama, and quiet meditations. His latest, Restless, isn’t another radical departure for the proud Portlander, but it does help to clarify what commonalities unite his filmography. All his films, and this is especially true of Restless, are personal but muted stories told with a real cinematic eye for the quietly powerful.
At first glance, Restless is a fucking ridiculous film. It’s about Enoch, a death-obsessed teenager (Henry Hopper) who plays Battleship with the ghost of a Kamikaze pilot from World War II. The story kicks in when he falls in love with a similarly oriented girl, Annabel (Mia Wasikowska), who is also fascinated by bugs and Charles Darwin.
Guys, it’s pretty adorable.
Before it even opened, people began talking about how unbearably Twee this could be. There concerns weren’t unfounded – what we have here is a romance between the two weird kids from High School that thought they were the most clever students in class just because they were so quiet, while stuck in clouds of Make-Believe. Some will label them saccharine, but anyone who can stomach a reasonable amount of cute will enjoy the whole ride.
Hopper and Wasikowska are playing very silly characters, but they’re grounded in a sadness that can be cancelled out by the presence of the other. That sweet semblance to real life turns this into a lamentation of what could have been in our own lives – or at least what we would have liked for there to have been.
That sentimentality is amplified by the craft of the film. Calm editing lets the story sit and tell itself; and Harris Savides’ Autumn photography ranges from chrisp browns and faded greys, recreating what makes Fall so weirdly effervescent, even as the summer dies.
For the first half, when Van Sant can just let his characters fall in love, the film is wonderful. But as it moves and requires some sort of conflict, the movie looses some footing. It works, but inevitably can’t help but feel a little forced. Characters understandably become upset, but all in line with something less affective or sui generis.
The story of two dysfunctional kids’ first romance is particularly prime for self-importance, and one that doesn’t require a million retellings. But Van Sant, with his lead actors, validate this one with a personal immediacy that breaks Restless past being just a retelling. You’ve heard stories like this before, but they didn’t mean as much as this one does.