(We're going to be taking a look over the next few weeks at some of the smaller 2011 films that we missed the first time around. Our first candidate is the recently-released-on-DVD Gus Van Sant film Restless.)
The “beautiful young woman who has to die to teach an emotionally repressed man what it means to love and live” genre was slightly voguish a decade ago, with films like Sweet November and Autumn In New York (and I might throw the truly awful City Of Angels in there) being responsible for more collective nausea than any insect buffet on Fear Factor could aspire to. Their male protagonists, trapped in the ennui of upper-class existence, enter into love affairs with free-spirited pixie girls who encourage them to live life on the wild side by jumping into piles of leaves and throwing away their day-planners, etc., etc. Films that intertwine love and loss can be moving, of course (see: The Descendants or Jeanette Winterson’s book Written On The Body), but the basic plotline of “this woman will be sacrificed on the altar of male happiness” is treated so poorly in many of these films that it winds up making one’s skin crawl.
If anyone could’ve approached the subject with a bit of nuance or real emotion, it’s easy to imagine that Gus Van Sant might’ve been it. Van Sant is, if nothing else, a director who seems committed to making movies that speak to his own personal vision, often creating moving films about societal outcasts. Whether we’re talking about people unable to cope with the ramifications of their own intelligence, or literary successes who shut themselves away from the world, or rock stars unable to cope with the pressures of fame, his heroes are often intelligent introverts, cut off from normal paths of socialization due to some deep and personal damage. That continues to be true in Restless, his latest film, but, unfortunately, it’s also bad. Really bad.
Our hero is named Enoch Brae, so we’re already off to a bad start. Enoch, a teen struggling to find meaning in life after the death of both of his parents (and no doubt wondering how he can go on living after discovering that his name is an anagram for “Ache Boner”), decides to dress as if he stepped out of a mod film and crash the funerals of people he doesn’t even know to achieve some kind of catharsis. He feels nothing, and that’s just as well, as actor Henry Hopper (Dennis Hopper's son) appears to be little more than living tissue sprayed onto a metal endoskeleton; it is as stiff a performance as you’re likely to see in a film from last year, even allowing for the fact that his character is emotionally damaged. The character bears an obvious resemblance to Rushmore’s Max Fischer, but whereas Fischer’s antics eventually became endearing, Brae simply sinks deeper and deeper into the hole that is the audience’s disdain.
Before you can say “I’m gonna take the organic brain dementia,” young “Bacon Here” is discovered during one of his funeral-crashing expeditions by an actual attendee of said funeral, the lively Annabel Cotton, who begins to accompany him to other funerals, despite his protestations. Cotton, drawn out of school by cancer which gives her only a few short months to live, spends her days sketching in her notebook and wistfully being wistful in a cemetary, where Hopper happens to cross paths with her again. Shortly thereafter, he insists on introducing her to his parents, in a scene which will set the tone for how you react to the film:
I confess to being a sentimentalist. I like The Notebook, and only mildly ironically. I recently re-watched Charlie St. Cloud and think I might’ve even undersold it in my generally-favorable review. It does not take much to get me involved in tales of young love. Even so, my eyes started rolling so hard during this scene that I was worried for a minute or two that I was actually going to do long-term damage to my ocular cavities. It is a scene that is supposed to be sweet, and possibly could’ve been in some other universe, but good lord: the kid is having a pretend conversation with his dead parents, and his new girlfriend pretends to hear them to, even going so far as to join in. As executed, it is one of the single most cringe-inducing scenes that I can recall from a 2011 film, and I’m the guy who watched The Smurfs.
Did I mention the kamikaze pilot? Oh, yeah: Roach Been either has an imaginary friend, or sees the actual ghost of a Japanese WWII kamikaze pilot, with the former being the more plausible course of action (because why would a WWII ghost choose to haunt some moping Northeastern U.S. kid?). The existence of the pilot, Hiroshi, is simply thrown out there, barely being registered as a point of discussion, and as such simply feels like something of a marketing hook, a bullet point in an electronic press kit for the film designed to make people remark on how unique and quirky your film is. Hiroshi and Enoch spend their time playing Battleship and throwing rocks at trains, although Hiroshi of course feels vaguely uneased by Enoch's growing closeness to Annabel. Eventually even the heavy-handed ghost=guilt theme of Charlie St. Cloud seems to become welcoming by comparison.
Restless trades on the grim portents of the “caterpillar becoming a butterfly and isn’t it so beautiful” genre, but screenwriter Jason Lew and Van Sant just can’t help delving into some hardcore Wes Andersonisms late in the film, as during this montage sequence that arrives shortly after Annabel’s final, fatal diagnosis arrives:
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this scene: upon discovering that she has mere weeks to live, it’s understandable that Annabel would wish to do interesting things with her remaining time. I would posit that the presentation is inherently insincere, however, or at least so twee as to repel all but the most wrist-cuttingly emo of viewers. The French soundtrack, the faux-20’s costumes, the elaborate swath of activities partaken (dancing in a field of gold? really?); these are made out to be less real characters than a pair of glaring falsenesses that are in love with the idea of being characters. I would find it difficult to like these people if I knew them in real life; I’d more likely pity them.
It’s not all bad. Mia Wasikowska imbues Annabel with more humanity than the script really deserves (even if it is a little weird that one of her few movies set in modern times still makes her dress up as if she was living a hundred years ago). Some of the scenes between her and her family members are endearing, even touching, especially when Bane Chore exits the film for a bit, even if they're usually cut short by OMG DRAMA:
This would’ve been a far better film had it been centered on the Annabel character and told something of her inner world; she has her quirks, the film being what it is, but she’s a far more compelling character (and actress) to watch if one had to pick between the two.
Restless is not a good film, although I’m willing to admit the possibility that, if you let it get to you, you might find something special inside of it. The layers of artifice and overwhelming sense of whimsy are obstacles, in that regard, but perhaps not insurmountable. To most eyes, however, this is a film that should stand as a near-perfect example of how to achieve an almost perfect mismatch of tone and subject matter. Not everything needs to be grim and gritty, but Restless is so unbelievably saccharine throughout that it’s liable to rot your teeth.
Maybe we’ll see more Enoch Brae someday, but to that possibility I can only say: “Bah Encore.” In the meantime, if you're in the mood for an actually engaging film about young damaged people, just give It's Kind Of A Funny Story another whirl.