Gus Van Sant’s “Restless” is a film about love, an ode to doomed but pure teenage infatuation. But it’s also about love of a film, in this case Hal Ashby’s cult classic “Harold and Maude.” It’s one of those cases where the lift (or “homage”) is so overt and massive that it’s hard to consider “Restless” on its own merits.
Ashby’s film was a product of the post-1960s freedom that American filmmakers enjoyed for a while, and it remains a singular film even today, with its death-obsessed and neurotic 20-year-old and the motorcycle-riding, vivacious granny with whom he becomes romantically involved. With its outrageous black humor (faked suicides) and different-is-OK philosophy it died at the box office, but became an all-time favorite of those whose language it spoke, the misfits and weirdos and loners, among whom presumably were Van Sant and screenwriter Jason Lew.
“Restless” features a withdrawn teenager named Enoch (played by a sallow Henry Hopper, son of the late Dennis Hopper) who, just like Bud Cort in “Harold and Maude,” spends his free time attending the funerals of people he doesn’t know. When he’s caught out one time, he’s rescued from humiliation by Annabel (an equally pallid Mia Wasikowska), who’s spunky and vibrant where Enoch is dour and furtive, which mirrors the dynamic in “Harold and Maude” except that Annabel’s a beautiful teenager instead of a weathered sixtysomething (thus losing much of the edge).
But just like with Maude, the irony is that Annabel — despite embracing life — doesn’t have much time left in this world. Annabel has cancer, and with only three months left to live, she chooses to have her first and last romance with Enoch.
The characters here are so fey, their obsessions so reliably goth — their first date is to get all dressed up in faux-Edwardian thrift-shop finery and visit the hospital morgue — their dialogue so stilted, with each line dragged out like a root canal, that by the time you get to Enoch’s invisible ghost friend — a young Japanese kamikaze pilot who died in 1945 (Ryo Kase), and with whom he plays the board game Battleship — a lot of viewers will bail.
Add to this the fact that for someone who doesn’t give a damn about life, Enoch sure seems to spend a lot of time on his hair, and also add the most painless beauty-intact cancer death in the history of cinema, and it’s hard to escape the feeling that this is an arty “Twilight” for the pallid girls (and guys) who wear too much eyeliner.
A soundtrack that includes Bon Iver, Sufjan Stevens and Nico rather reinforces that feeling. Bon Iver is actually a good point of reference: If the fragile, weedy hipsterism of that artist appeals to you, “Restless” probably will as well. If on the other hand you find Bon Iver a bit precious, then Van Sant’s film is maybe 10 times so.
And yet … this is one of those films I was shredding in my mind as I watched it (the thrift-shop-Gatsby cosplay montage was particularly annoying) but it did manage to linger in my head for days. I suppose that’s the most backhanded compliment I can muster, but so be it. “Restless” wobbles on an axis of twee; it’s sappy and painfully sensitive, but at its core are two rather indelible performances, and they may speak to the current generation of misfits and weirdos and loners who have yet to discover “Harold and Maude.” Given the choice, though, my advice is to always go to the source.