Gus Van Sant Goes Hollywood-Light in 'Restless'

Remembering that the guy who made 'Elephant' also made 'Good Will Hunting'

Warning: This movie contains the wearing of cloche hats and ironic montage fencing and the Beatles' "Two of Us." In short, preciously quirky romantic comedy lies within. And if Mia Wasikowska's Annabel isn't enough of an unrealistic manic pixie dream girl already with her outsized thrift-find duds and passion for ornithology, she sports an actual pixie haircut. It turns out there's a good reason for that, though: Annabel's hair is growing back after cancer treatments. Just in time for her to meet-cute Enoch (newcomer Henry Hopper) at a funeral. A funeral for a stranger—that he's crashing, which is his hobby. So not only is Restless a preciously quirky romantic comedy, it's a preciously quirky romantic comedy about a pair of death-obsessed teen misfits, one of whom faces death herself. Basically, it's Harold and Maude reimagined and sanitized for the Teen Disney generation.

It's a little tough to imagine director Gus Van Sant delivering such a high-concept pitch in some luxe Hollywood office, but this is not totally unknown turf for him. While unblinking looks at the mundane lives of youth dot his filmography, from the Mexican illegals of his 1986 debut Mala Noche on up to the numbed/traumatized '00s high-schoolers of Elephant and Paranoid Park, every few years he's also good for a Good Will Hunting or Finding Forrester, pure Hollywood fantasies of coming of age. Presuming that he's taking some kind of one-for-me-and-one-for-them approach, Restless appears distinctly one for them. Regardless, Van Sant deploys the requisite quirky rom-com tropes like the pro he is, and how much you enjoy them here is likely to be directly proportional to how many times you've seen them before.

Enoch is the kind of character who takes the bus to a stranger's funeral in a dirty old frock coat and riding boots and then builds a small house out of crackers from the buffet at the reception. Annabel is the kind of character who would walk up to him, sporting a cheery grin, and say, "I like your cracker house." Naturally, they were meant to be together. Enoch, we discover, harbors dark secrets, doled out over the course of the movie, that ostensibly explain his sulky pessimism and obsession with death. What goes unexplained is why his beleaguered aunt (Jane Adams, three scenes tops) doesn't have him in therapy. Annabel's secrets are darker, and refreshingly have nothing to do for once with a drunky mom (Lusia Strus) or wilder older sister (Schuyler Fisk). Yet even as Restless delves into Annabel's illness, it remains curiously unfateful. For all the death that hangs over Enoch and Annabel's relationship—he expands his personal chalk outline to take in her prone form, they go on a date to a morgue, they practice him finding her body—actual mortality remains at arm's length. She remains largely unscathed, as if she was suffering from the same fairy-tale form of cancer that claimed Ali McGraw in Love Story.

That's a reference that those who will likely enjoy this movie most will not get, an audience for whom the ghost of a Japanese kamikaze pilot (Ryo Kase) who serves as Enoch's best friend might as well be a medieval knight. (Yes, the main character's best friend is the ghost of a Japanese kamikaze pilot.) Regardless, if Restless is a giant cliché of a preciously quirky romantic comedy, it is a well-made one. Van Sant over-relies on Garden State-style sensitive indie to tint many scenes with melancholy and longing, but the love scenes are a revelation, filmed in tight close-up and shallow focus, collapsing the world down to the increasingly narrow space between the actors' faces, falling rain or the occasional creaking floorboard the only outside sounds. A foggy Halloween evening actually captures some of the family friendly eeriness and autumnal dread of the holiday. And Wasikowska confirms that the camera loves her, and such is her appeal and her talent that you might just love her here too, no matter how wildly unreal her character is. Sweet and harmless, just like Restless. Not so much like death.