By Ray Bennett
TORONTO – “Restless” is a regrettably lame title for Gus Van Sant’s little film about a love affair that flourishes in the face of death, which against the odds is insightful, witty and charming. Annabel is beautiful and delicate, and dying of cancer. Enoch is beautiful and delicate, and quite bonkers after surviving a car crash in which his parents were killed. It’s a romance doomed from the start, and it sounds insufferable.
It does cause a wince or two along the way but thanks to a witty script by Jason Lew and captivating performances by Mia Wasikowska and Henry Hopper, it succeeds. Australian Wasikowska is almost a veteran after a range of films from “Alice In Wonderland” to “Jane Eyre” to “The Kids Are All Right” and Hopper, son of the late Dennis Hopper, makes his film debut. Van Sant draws from them both performances that appear unmannered and natural.
More handsome even than his father was at his age, and without his dad’s youthful onscreen tendency to sneer and mumble, Hopper plays the stylishly dressed and seemingly assured Enoch with droll finesse. Enoch likes to attend the funerals of strangers and play Battleship with his imaginary friend Hiroshi (Ryo Kase), the still-uniformed ghost of a Japanese World War II kamikaze pilot.
Intrigued by the young man’s morbid fascination, Annabel saves him from an outraged funeral director and when she reveals that her illness is terminal, he offers to help see her through her trial.
Lew’s deft screenplay allows their relationship to flourish with many comic touches that reflect their plausible fantasies without diminishing their reality. It’s refreshing that both youngsters accept the young woman’s fate as a matter of fact, and there is nothing wishy-washy about what they know will happen.
The main question is how the troubled boy will react as Annabel’s death grows near and what will happen to him after she goes. There’s a clever scene in which Annabel imagines dying poetically and Enoch mimes putting a blade to his stomach in the act of seppuku, which causes the young woman no end of annoyance.
Danny Elfman’s splendid mix of musical tones and rhythms enhances the entire film, especially a montage sequence in which Enoch and Annabel play badminton, go skating, ride bicycles, take karate and generally enjoy life.
Wasikowska and Hopper make the couple thoroughly appealing as they both eschew cuteness in disciplined portrayals of unconventional characters. Annabel’s treatment leaves her remarkably unscathed physically and while Wasikowska does become credibly wan and frail, she remains lovely.
There’s a recurring reference to songbirds that believe they will die at night and so they sing in the morning because they are so glad to be alive, and a little of that goes a long way. But in the main, Lew and Van Sant hit the right chords and make their picture less about accepting death than embracing life.
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival. US release Sept. 16, Columbia Pictures; UK release Oct. 21, Sony Pictures; Cast: Henry Hopper, Mia Wasikowska, Ryo Kase, Schuyler Fisk; Director: Gus Van Sant; Writer: Jason Lew; Producers: Brian Grazer, Bryce Dallas Howard, Ron Howard; Director of photography: Harris Savides; Production designer: Anne Ross; Music: Danny Elfman; Editor: Elliot Graham; Costume designer: Danny Glicker; Executive producers: Eric Black, David Allen Cress, Frank Mancuso Jr.; Production companies: Columbia Pictures, Imagine Entertainment, 360 Pictures. No rating, runs
Here’s a trailer for Restless