Following on from 2008′s Milk, Gus Van Sant chooses to use a fairly conventional film-making style for his most recent film, Restless. For fans of his more avant-garde work, this can be a little disappointing. Van Sant’s Elephant (2003) used extremely long-takes and a non-linear narrative to create a haunting film inspired by the Columbine High School shootings. While Restless is considerably easier to watch and probably appeals more to mainstream audiences, it’s something of a let down for fans of his previous work.
Atypical teenagers Annabel (Mia Wasikowska) and Enoch (Henry Hopper) are the focal characters of the film; they’re portrayed with the same self-conscious hipster quirkiness that is extremely popular in films dealing with young people recently. These teenagers don’t seem to watch TV, listen to music or surf the internet, instead their primary interests apparently lie in games of battleships and studies of Charles Darwin. While many teenage films seem intent on cramming as many pop culture references into the film as possible, Restless tends to avoid this. The soundtrack, which consists of artists such as Bon Iver and Sufjan Stevens, does however add to the film’s ’indie credibility’, as well as reflecting the calm stoicism demonstrated by Annabel’s character.
The main subject of the film is death. We learn early on that Annabel suffers from terminal cancer, and Enoch has clearly been deeply effected by the death of his parents. The pair meet at a memorial service (with obvious influence taken from the 1971 film, Harold and Maude), and it is made clear that Enoch attends the funerals of strangers as some form of compensation for missing the funeral of his parents. As if Enoch wasn’t emotionally crippled enough, he is also given an imaginary friend in the form of a Japanese kamikaze pilot. However, while Enoch is portrayed as somebody unable to appropriately deal with death, Annabel’s attitude to her own impending fate is so accepting it’s unbelievable. She displays barely any negative emotions whatsoever, and is portrayed as a perfect, angelic human being. It could be argued that this also portrays the idea of first loves, where everything often does seem so perfect, with the inevitably tragic ending of the film reminding us that these amazing early relationships rarely last. The film predominantly deals with coping methods and attitudes to death, with imagination being shown equally as a way of dealing with, and a way of avoiding, reality.
Performances and characterisation in the film fall a little flat. Wasikowska works well despite the threadbare nature of her character. There is barely any discussion of the realities of cancer, it appears more as an occasional inconvenience than an actual illness that affects her in her day-to-day existence. Van Sant has almost managed to romanticise the illness; her appearance is pale but exudes radiance rather than an aura of sickness, and her short haircut looks cute and pixie-like rather than serving as a reminder of her cancer treatment. Hopper’s character is given a few witty lines but generally appears quite two-dimensional.
Despite this, the film is still relatively moving. Annabel is built up to be such a lovely character that it is impossible not to feel sad when the inevitable happens. Van Sant manages to incorporate a slightly ambiguous – yet hopeful – note to the ending: we assume that the act of going to Annabel’s memorial service will be a cathartic experience for Enoch, and that he will hopefully move on from this. One of the key messages of the film is that life is short, and to enjoy it while it lasts. It seems that overall, Gus Van Sant is trying to take the realities of a negative situation and turn them into something positive. An admirable effort, but unfortunately the film doesn’t quite achieve this. Restless is a nice film to watch, but the two-dimensional characters and use of clichés result in it failing to have quite the intended emotional impact.