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.
All young lovers fancy themselves in their own special world beyond others' full understanding. But Restless buys into that specialness with a vengeance. Its romanticism is that an arrested-adolescent type spanning the tuberculic etherealism of those wasting Victorian heroines Edward Gorey parodied, the girl-dying-from-too-much-spiritual-radiance Love Story (1970) formula, and the smiley face noncomformism of Harold and Maude (1971) and its ilk, wherein acting childish was a rebellious act of sticking it to the Man. In such narratives our protagonists almost never have jobs, likable relatives, or other real-world responsibilities, the better to act out fey fanasties together, then wallow in picturesque pathos alone. They're their own Make a Wish Foundation, 24/7.
Puppies and kittens are cute, and getting suckered by this kind of enterprise is hardly the worst form of audience manipulation. But why is Van Sant playing enabler? One suspects there was something irresistible about first-time scenarist Jason Lew, just as there doubtless was to Matt 'n' Ben (Good Will Hunting) and to Milk's Dustin Lance Black.
But those choices were solid ones, at least. Always a fan of youth, the director is to be applauded for encouraging fledgling talent offscreen as well as on it. Still, occasional traces of his recognizable style hardly dilute the sugary sentimentality at the core of Restless, lend it actual gravitas or even the kind of fanciful mood that might excuse potential preciousness as fable. Twenty-two-but-passing-for-younger of the moment Wasikowska is fine, though she has been and will be better. Hopper, son of Dennis — how did such scrubbed, nonthreatening blond adorability arise from that gene pool? — is less evidently an actor in his first film than a prepube's pinup successor to Justin and Zac. Not that he's asked to act so much as pose fetchingly, of course. It may be Lew's idea to make Annabel the "mature one," but it feels very much Van Sant's to let the camera fawn so devotedly over Enoch.
RESTLESS opens Fri/16 in Bay Area theaters.