Annabel (Mia Wasikowska) has cancer, but don’t worry, it’s just movie cancer. She has a brain tumor which has a precise ticking clock on how long it will allow her to live, so she can still run around, dance, skip, and eat cheeseburgers with milkshakes (to see what real movie cancer looks like, you’ll have to see movies like Love Story and The Bucket List).
Enoch (Henry Hopper) has bad timing. He meets Annabel right around the time she learns of her depressing fate and discovers they share a particularly odd outlook towards the rest of the world. He spends his weekends gate crashing the funerals of strangers because he has an unhealthy preoccupation with death. Annabel finds this peculiarity attractive and they start building a relationship from there. Annabel does not lie to Enoch though, he is well aware from the beginning there can only be one result of spending time with her.
Enoch is not alone though. He enjoys the company of a ghost, specifically a Japanese kamikaze pilot named Hiroshi (Ryo Kase) who remains forever in the flight suit he was wearing when he fulfilled his destiny. Hiroshi encourages Enoch to talk to and spend time with Annabel and he is also much more active than your average ghost, but certainly not to a Patrick Swayze level. Hiroshi enjoys nightly games of Battleship with Enoch and even gets visibly upset when the word Nagasaki is mentioned.
On paper, these are three intriguing main characters that should have produced a wonderful, quirky film, especially since Restless is directed by Gus Van Sant. Unfortunately, Restless comes nowhere near to fulfilling its promise — mainly a result of a poorly written script and shoddy acting. The screenwriter is first timer Jason Lew who adapted it from a play he wrote at NYU. This story may very well work much better as a play and observed with real time actors on a stage. His friend at NYU, Bryce Dallas Howard, saw the play’s promise and produced the movie along with her father Ron Howard and his production partner Brian Grazer.
Those are some very influential names. I am shocked to see that Brian Grazer and Ron Howard would put their names and money behind Restless; we’re talking about the guys behind A Beautiful Mind, American Gangster, and Arrested Development. Well, then again, Brian Grazer was also behind Blue Crush and something called Curious George 2: Follow That Monkey!. Perhaps it is not that strange.
Restless also appears to be one of those vehicles for the Hollywood kids. Henry Hopper is Dennis Hopper’s son and this is his first lead role. Bryce Dallas Howard is Ron Howard’s daughter and this is her first time producing. Annabel’s sister Elizabeth is played by Schuyler Fisk who is Sissy Spacek’s daughter. Fisk was also in Orange County which is another Hollywood kid’s film; remember the lead character there was played by Colin Hanks, the prodigy of a Mr. Tom Hanks.
I mentioned the acting was the second reason the movie does not work very well. Henry Hopper is unsure of himself in his first lead role and any scene which requires him to be agitated, angry, or upset turns out to be a disaster. Mia Wasikowska is much better but comes nowhere close to her superior performances from Alice in Wonderland and Jane Eyre. She has a horrible script to work with and is unable to produce much good from it.
Restless was the opening film from the 2011 Un Certain Regard section at the Cannes Film Festival. These films are reserved for “original and different” films which the festival organizers think deserve international attention. I can see why they would put a Gus Van Sant movie in this category because of his previous films such as Elephant and Gerry. Those two were absolutely original and different. However, just because his name is Gus Van Sant does not mean every movie he makes will be original and different; Restless is not — it is just plain vanilla and a waste of some major talent.