TIFF ’11 Review: Death Takes a Holiday in Portland in Gus Van Sant’s “Restless”

Applying the spare style of "Elephant" and "Paranoid Park" to a mainstream love story, Gus Van Sant's latest feels disarmingly honest, even if it's to a reality that can...

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RestlessMiaWasikowskaHenryHopper

Read all our coverage of the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival here.

One of my favorite opening set-ups for a film in recent memory was the introduction to Gus Van Sant’s “Finding Forrester,” a movie generally unloved by fans of the director who had been weened on “My Own Private Idaho” and “To Die For” and far less likely to succumb to the populist charms of a sepia-tinted story of friendship between a reclusive author and the high school student he mentors from the wrong side of the tracks.

Apparently knowing this, Van Sant opens the movie with a clapperboard with the film’s title, his name and that of cinematographer Harris Savides, instantly inviting the audience into the illusion of the movie rather than suggesting it’s a reality to gradually buy into (though there’s an argument to be made that in resembling a documentary, it actually ups the authenticity).

For those who have followed the director through thick and thin, seeing Van Sant’s name alongside Savides once more is reason enough to see “Restless,” the tearjerker lovingly filmed in his native Portland, Oregon and yet despite the fact there’s no clapperboard to present to announce it, his latest falls squarely into the “movie” category. That’s not to diminish expectations, but rather to readjust them as Van Sant brings a flannel soft touch to a film that resembles the work of Nicholas Sparks far more than of the director’s longtime influence Béla Tarr.

RestlessMiaWasikowskaHenryHopper Originally hatched in the most Hollywood of traditions when first-time screenwriter Jason Lew passed along his script to friend and fellow NYU classmate Bryce Dallas Howard who had the muscle to get it produced, “Restless” is something of a hybrid, telling the “Harold and Maude”-esque story of two kindred spirits who meet while attending local funerals as one is on the verge of having a burial of their own. Unlike the Hal Ashby classic, the main characters are both teenagers and since the film doesn’t go the dark comedy route as Ashby did, it relies on the earnest application of names like Enoch Brae (played by Henry Hopper) and that character’s companion/vision of a World War II kamikaze pilot (Ryo Kase) to set it apart from other such films where the person who’s dying teaches the other to truly live.

“Restless” survives its quirk rather than be enhanced by it, but that’s because in fact the cancer-stricken Annabel (Mia Wasikowska) and Enoch make a lovely couple and Van Sant is gifted enough to allow their stolen kisses on the sidewalk and goofy grins over French fries breathe. Told in the same largely ambivalent, low-key style of films such as “Elephant” and “Paranoid Park,” the film can’t feel as natural, given its script’s adherence to a well-worn formula. Still, it does take on a lightheaded, dreamlike quality that makes it gently romantic, as if both its characters have already graduated to a more comfortable existence in the afterlife, a place where Enoch’s games of Battleship with Hiroshi the ghost pilot are far more acceptable.

Hopper, who has his father Dennis’ determined gaze, proves himself as a credible lead as Enoch, wild-eyed enough to convey his frustration with everyone and everything around him without coming off as cloying. Likewise, Wasikowska, doesn’t have to do much as the terminal Annabel to make Enoch (or an audience) care for her, but with an expressiveness of facial features that was meant for the silent era, she underplays the role so as not to be a victim, nor brave, but just a teen inexperienced enough to not know what she’ll miss, yet seemingly aware of something no one else is. “Restless” proves again its director does as well in capturing a moment frozen in time for most people even when lives aren’t at stake but feel as though they are.

“Restless” opens in limited release on September 16th via Sony Pictures Classics. It will play Toronto once more on September 9th at the TIFF Bell Lightbox 2.

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