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Restless

September 16, 2011  |  1:17pm
<i>Restless</i>

Meet Enoch Brae (Henry Hopper, son of Dennis), a sad, possibly suicidal lad who crashes strangers’ funerals wearing a three-piece suit. Meet Annabel Cotton (Mia Wasikowska), a lively lass who sketches birds and insects and dresses like a boy. Theirs is a tragic love story designed to tug, hard, at the heartstrings: She has cancer, and she’s going to die.

Enoch and Annabel are perfect foils for one another: He got a second chance at life when he survived the car crash that killed his parents, but he’s obsessed with death. Really obsessed: he traces his own chalk outline on Portland’s asphalt and plays the board game Battleship with the ghost of a kamikaze pilot (Ryo Kase). She, on the other hand, has been given three months to live, but she’s obsessed with life, dubbing herself a naturalist and traipsing into the wilderness with her sketchbook, a la her personal hero Charles Darwin. It’s all so quirky and precious—the timelessness evoked by the dearth of cell phones and laptops extends to their vintage getups as well— that it starts to feel manufactured, and as a result fails to evoke the intended emotional response.

In Annabel we have the best/worst example of a manic pixie dream girl, that cinematic type who flits into a brooding young man’s life and teaches him to embrace mystery and adventure. With her close-cropped, straw-colored hair, Wasikowska even looks like a forest sprite, and indeed Annabel and Enoch share a particularly romantic moment in a cabin in the woods. Annabel is so perfect despite—or perhaps because of—her illness that the necessary introduction of conflict feels forced and false. She never gets scared or really selfish, emotions that would make her teenager with a death sentence feel more relatable. Instead, she’s a saint, a martyr, an angel—but not a real person.

In a bit of savvy casting, Schuyler Fisk plays Annabel’s older sister and, since their mother is a bit of a lush, her caregiver-by-default. She not only looks the part—she also injects a much needed dose of authentic human perspective to the otherwise airy proceedings. It’s Elizabeth who reacts “appropriately” to Annabel’s diagnosis, who wonders whether it’s healthy for these two young, fragile souls to grow so close so quickly—a concern she holds for Enoch as well as Annabel—while loathing doing anything to stand in the way of her sister’s happiness in the little time she has left.

Directing a script written by newcomer Jason Lew and shepherded by producer Bryce Dallas Howard, Gus Van Sant abandons the improvisational arthouse style that has characterized much of his work over the past decade. Although set in his hometown of Portland, where he’s shot several of his recent films, and dealing with the same themes as his so-called “Death Trilogy,” Restless has more in common with the similarly sentimental but better-executed Good Will Hunting than with, say, Elephant. It’s a disappointing, maudlin development in a career that’s been fascinating ever since he followed up Finding Forrester with Gerry.

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