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Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2011

Restless

Gus Van Sant's nuanced take on romance, death

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On paper, the plot of Restless sounds ridiculous. In director Gus Van Sant's new film, romance gradually blossoms between two teenagers, Enoch and Annabel, who meet while crashing the funeral parties of strangers. Right, and Enoch has this friend, Hiroshi, who happens to be the ghost of a kamikaze pilot (and speaks perfect American English!). And Annabel, with only three months to live, will soon learn whether ghosts are real. But in execution, Restless is a wonderfully and strangely moving film and the year's best love story to date.

Enoch (Henry Hopper) is introduced from a bird's-eye perspective: Wearing a dark suit and tie, he stretches out on a sidewalk after tracing his outline with chalk. He's playing the role of a murder victim, which corresponds to his troubled psychological condition. Enoch's parents died in a car crash, and he blames everyone for their profound absence. Sulky faced, with eyes trained on an uncertain horizon, Enoch tries to shake off the lovely, elfin Annabel (Mia Wasikowska). But the interlopers in other people's grief connect through Annabel's frank, disarming directness. Awkward Enoch, his emotions tied in tight knots, begins to loosen under her charm. Hiroshi (Ryo Kase) is a fine friend, even if he always wins when they play board games (remember "Battleship"?), but after all, a ghost can only do so much.

Restless
unfolds against the backdrop of autumn in a city of falling leaves. Intimations of the cycle of life and death are everywhere. An amateur ornithologist, Annabel says her favorite bird believes death comes with the setting sun and rejoices in beautiful song when it rises the next morning. She is as irrepressible as sunlight, but, like the sun, shadows are cast. Enoch and Annabel rehearse her death, which she tries to plan as if it were a birthday party. Accepting her impending demise from cancer with little fuss, her example casts light into the dark cavern where Enoch has retreated.

Restless
moves along at an easy clip, telling parts of the story through swift editing. The Halloween sequence is magical, unwinding on misty streets full of "trick or treat," with menace and ecstasy wrapped in deep shadows. Annabel accepts Hiroshi without question, and although she doesn't see him, the threesome appears on screen together. Jason Lew's finely nuanced screenplay evades the pitfalls of cheap irony, forced whimsy and contrived happy endings. It's a rare film for looking death in the face and staring past the encrusted clichés ("I'm sorry for your loss") into an unknowable but inevitable reality. Restless is also about the redemptive power of love, which can mend even the most broken of hearts.
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