Gus Van Sant's latest exploration of photogenic youth has a terminal case of the cutes
Imagine a 2011 studio exec giving script notes on the classic “Harold and Maude,” and they’d probably be along these lines: “The lead kid shouldn’t be weird looking; make him a Hollister model with slightly emo tendencies. And no one wants to watch a hot young guy make out with grandma; get rid of the old lady and make her a pretty teenage girl with a brain tumor. But not an ugly one — the kind of brain tumor where you can still ride bikes and look adorable.”
And that’s pretty much “Restless” in a nutshell, a twee morass of clichés about photogenic, death-obsessed teens and their moody, wistful, doomed romance.
If this movie had been directed by a first-timer, I’d tell him to put away his Wes Anderson DVDs and to apply his potentially compelling aesthetic to a more emotionally honest brand of storytelling.
But “Restless” is the new Gus Van Sant movie, and as such represents a massive miscalculation from a filmmaker who should really know better. Van Sant has explored the lives of aesthetically pleasing adolescents in films like “My Own Private Idaho,” “Elephant,” and “Paranoid Park,” and while those movies championed their young protagonists’ point of view — or at least firmly stood by in support of them — the kids in “Restless” are so utterly phony and contrived that we can’t believe the director can take them seriously for even a second.
First there’s Enoch (Henry Hopper), who gads about in stylishly gloomy vintage menswear and has lengthy conversations with Hiroshi (Ryo Kase), the ghost of a World War II kamikaze pilot. Enoch likes to visit the gravesite of his late parents, as well as attending the funerals of strangers, even though he’s the screen’s least convincing morbidly-obsessed young adult since Zac Efron in “Charlie St. Cloud.”
It’s at one of those funerals that Enoch meets twinkly gamine Annabel (Mia Wasikowska), who doesn’t let her terminal diagnosis keep her from making the scene in exquisite ensembles — there’s an extended montage where the couple rides bikes and even engage in fencing, always in great outfits — or from reading up on Charles Darwin and the evolution of birds and insects. Her terminal disease is of the Ali MacGraw variety in “Love Story,” allowing her to grow ever more beautiful the closer she gets to kicking the bucket.
The fakery going on here is exacerbated by Danny Elfman’s winsome, carousel-ready score, which is occasionally interrupted by breathy, over-earnest singer-songwriter compositions. By the time Nico popped up on the soundtrack at the end, I felt much worse for the former Velvet Underground singer than for any of the two-dimensional magazine-ad characters in the movie.
Yes, teenagers overdramatize everything, particularly death, but “Restless” enables that navel-gazing; it’s one thing for Van Sant to portray teen hustlers and killers with a detached perspective, but this time, he’s got Stockholm Syndrome. The movie gets so jingly-pingly and pwecious that you wait for the director to pull the rug out from under these pretty twits, but it never happens.
Wasikowska, for her part, at least commits to this ridiculousness, making this perfect little hipster paragon as much of an actual human being as the film will allow, but while first-timer Hopper has certainly inherited his father’s famously angular face, he’s not a seasoned enough actor to make any of his moments on the screen ring true.
Van Sant isn’t the sort of filmmaker to flop in a small way — remember his tedious shot-for-shot remake of “Psycho”? — and with “Restless” he’s given us the sort of gargantuan catastrophe that only a master moviemaker can create.