(2011)3.5Perry SeibertGus Van Sant's delicate drama Restless feels like a natural creative evolution from his "death trilogy" of Gerry, Elephant, and Last Days. In those three indie films, the auteur examined the mind-sets of different people leading up to their deaths. Restless, similar to his Paranoid Park, finds Van Sant exploring what happens to the people who live on after getting their first glimpses of death.
The movie stars Henry Hopper (son of Dennis) as Enoch, an emotionally withdrawn, quirky teenager who goes to strangers' funerals and plays Battleship with his only friend, a kamikaze pilot who is either a figment of his imagination or a ghost. At a service for a child who died of cancer, Henry meets Annabel (Mia Wasikowska), who was a fellow patient in the same cancer ward. The two quickly bond when she helps him escape from a funeral director who recognizes that Enoch has been crashing wakes. Their attachment eventually deepens, but her diagnosis ensures that they have only a few months together. In that time, she helps him deal with a profound trauma, and he helps her prepare for death.
What's masterful about Restless is that Van Sant and screenwriter Jason Lew establish a tone for the film that's as fragile as Enoch's emotional state. There's an early scene where the two visit his parents' graves and have an imaginary conversation with them. The entire sequence is a make-or-break moment for the audience, and unwavering cynics will dismiss the entire movie as sickeningly cute. But Van Sant never submits to simple twee preciousness -- there's genuine pain in Enoch's life, best explored in his relationship with his aunt (a flawless Jane Adams), who has been trying to care for him since his parents' deaths.
For a film to succeed with such a delicate tone, the actors need to be at their best, and Wasikowska and Hopper succeed. Hopper has a quietly charismatic vulnerability that will trigger parental impulses in anybody. As for Wasikowska, with just a few film and television credits so far, she's shown more potential for a lengthy and fascinating career than any actress her age, and her work here only confirms her bright future. She gives Annabel an intelligence that keeps her from becoming just a martyr-pixie-dream girl. Annabel doesn't deny her fears, but she's learned to not let them dictate how she's going to spend the time she still has.
These two fresh-faced young performers keep Van Sant's autumnal/wintery color scheme from overwhelming us with depression. It's an achievement that a movie so sad doesn't leave you feeling sad at all. There's a genuine catharsis for both Enoch and the audience, making Restless a rare film about death that actually delivers you back to the world happy to be alive.