Gus Van Sant's Restless delivers cute overload
FILM For a while there it looked like Gus Van Sant, one of the most interesting U.S. directorial sensibilities of the last quarter-century, was going to settle for cashing the checks that have lured many an "edgy" artist over to the dull dark side. His mainstreaming began with the mixed rewards of 1995's To Die For, peaking commercially with 1997's Good Will Hunting; Finding Forrester (2000) and Psycho (1998) weren't justifiable choices on any terms.
But then with the quartet of Gerry (2002), Elephant (2003), Last Days (2005), and Paranoid Park (2007) he was back making films as small, idiosyncratic, personal, and (but for his name) less commercial than anything he'd done since 1986's Mala Noche. You could call them brilliant, baffling, or boring, but they weren't works of careerist complacency. Milk (2008) was something else, crafted to reach as many as possible politically. It was a very good rather than great movie, coaxing a warmth and ebullience previously unseen from Sean Penn.
After that streak, it's no big deal that Restless isn't very good, let alone great, or that it falls between personal and mainstream categorization — small enough to pass as the former, formulaic enough for the latter. What is notable, however, is that it's bad in ways Van Sant hasn't hazarded before, and which you might reasonably have thunk he never would. Yes, Psycho, and maybe 1993's excessively dissed Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, is still worse. But Restless is pandering and insufferable: it's got a case of the cutes so advanced the protagonists might as well be puppies and kittens.
Making use of a certified "eccentric" identifier that (if you swap in 12 step meetings, etc.) is already an overexposed narrative gimmick, Jason Lew's script introduces pettable Enoch (Henry Hopper) as a teenage loner so affectedly angst-ridden his primary occupation is attending the funerals of complete strangers. At one such he meets the perky, equally quirky Annabel (Mia Wasikowska), who finds his surliness delightful and presses friendship upon him. It's not going to be a major commitment, as she soon explains she's in treatment for cancer with a very limited remaining lifespan.
Drawn by overlapping cute fixations on morbidity (both have dead parents as well), they are fast spending all their time together, to the somewhat ill explained annoyance of her older sister (Schuyler Fisk). (He's living with an aunt played by Jane Adams, who gets so little to do here one suspects most of her part is on the cutting-room floor.)
They do moderately wacky things and share secrets, the latter including his conversations with imaginary friend Hiroshi (Ryo Kase), the ghost of a fictive downed World War II kamikaze pilot. (Adding to the Charlie St. Cloud like levels of twee, despite his made-up status wise Hiroshi sometimes knows things Enoch doesn't yet, and eventually Annabel can see him, too.) Both have plenty of time on their hands because, well, she's dying and he's been expelled from school for reasons that naturally turn out to be rather noble.