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Mia Wasikowska and Henry Hopper in Restless.

His Own Private Kamikaze


The title of this, Gus Van Sant’s latest movie, may be more relevant to his own film career than anything or anyone in the picture. Since My Own Private Idaho, his breakthrough effort 18 years ago, Van Sant has followed a swerving, eccentric career trajectory. Idaho, a singular and sympathetic treatment of the life of gay street kids and young hustlers in Portland, Oregon, infused with elements borrowed from Shakespeare’s Henry IV and centering on a boy (River Phoenix in his last completed role) with a symbolically resonant case of narcolepsy was a bit of a mess, but interestingly, even endearingly so. It also loosely established some themes running through much of Van Sant’s subsequent work and set the stage for a curious professional pattern. He continued to depict young male social outliers with a sympathetic and frequently sentimental approach. And he began a pattern of following a success with an eccentric, sometimes almost solipsistic failure of a project. Now he’s gone from his acclaimed biopic Milk to Restless, which extends that pattern and has echoes of previous material, although it has its own stubborn disregard for naturalist conventions.

Enoch (Henry Hopper, the late Dennis’s son), the morose youth who becomes one-half of the movie’s rather unpersuasive love affair, is presumably the agitated character to whom the title alludes. Actually, when we first encounter him, he seems more emotionally repressed than restive. He’s also attending a memorial service for someone he never met, evidently a regular practice of his. It’s there that he all too cutely comes into contact with Annabelle (Mia Wasikowska), who tries unsuccessfully to chat him up, but later, in a similar venue, saves him from the unpleasant consequences of his oddball pastime. (What she’s doing there is never explicitly explained.)

Quickly and unexpectedly bonding with her, Enoch invites her to meet his parents, and takes her to a cemetery. His father and mother’s demise, we’re given to understand, is the cause of the boy’s funereal pursuits, as well as his high school dropout status and his ghostly relationship with Hiroshi (Ryo Kase), the shade of a Second World War Japanese kamikaze pilot. Enoch wanders Portland’s streets and parks with Hiroshi, and plays pegboard war games with him at home.

It shouldn’t be necessary to note that Annabelle can’t see or hear Hiroshi, an inability that doesn’t seem to disturb her. Indeed, her cheerful, imperturbable engagement with her world is particularly marked since she’s terminally ill, with a prognosis of several months. Initially at least, Enoch doesn’t behave as if he’s daunted or depressed by her situation and their close relationship is sweetly, and improbably, conventional, especially given the circumstances. “You can do a lot in three months,” the formerly emotionally crippled Enoch confidently tells his new girl. Eventually, this star-crossed union begins to reflect its very sadly circumscribed conditions, but even then Van Sant doesn’t go very far with the tragic potential.

One of this movie’s most obvious curiosities is its depiction of Annabelle, which is in no way the actress’ fault. Annabelle’s generous, placid acceptance of the facts of life and death is almost saintly. Despite seeming to have no friends before she meets Enoch, besides an elder sister (Schuyler Fish) who’s a parent replacement for the girl’s shadowy, alcoholic mother, Annabelle seems unnaturally contented. Van Sant has always been better at directing boys and young men and his young female protagonist appears to be almost as unreal as Hiroshi. It should come as no surprise that Enoch’s experience with Annabelle eases his debilitating emotional burden and reconnects him to life.

Van Sant must have been aiming for a sense of the poignantly uplifting, but the whimsies and the fey inspirational quality can seem distancing and a little eerie, and finally a little annoying. And though it scarcely matters by then, near the end, the picture stops making sense even on its own limited terms. The real surprise may be that Van Sant manages to make this quirk-ridden malarkey intermittently engaging, a measure of his undeniable filmmaking gifts. Restless has a mutedly-lambent look as it moves through various Portland settings (the city is Van Sant’s home and headquarters), and the director’s practiced skill with actors sometimes shows in the way they surmount the problematic material. You can start to be lulled into acceptance.

But Van Sant breaks that tenuous spell with his attempt at combining emotion-tugging melodrama with heavy-handed departures from realism.

Watch the trailer for Restless

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