It isn’t until the end of Gus Van Sant’s Restless that I feel anything for its protagonist, who begins the film as a petulant funeral crasher, a stranger in a land reserved for those with an intimate knowledge of the dead. He has his reasons for dressing in black and sitting in on services, but I suspect most of us have our reasons for most of the things we do, known only to us. For everybody else, our intent is hidden behind a brick wall.
Enoch Brae (Harry Hopper) is said funeral crasher, and it is at one of these funerals that he meets Annabel Cotton (Mia Wasikowska), who recognizes him as an outsider immediately. She doesn’t seem to mind his presence at the funeral. Matter of fact, she seems interested in Enoch, who is by no means a normal boy. He walks around like the disheveled, moribund hero of a 90s arthouse film. Why? That’s a mystery to her and everybody else who comes into contact with Enoch, but it’s one she sets out to solve.
The caveat is that Annabel has cancer, an inoperable brain tumor that gives her, at best, three months to live. Her friendship with Enoch blossoms into a young romance, but it is obviously doomed. She’s determined not to let it get her down. He’s ambivalent, at times joking, at times not wanting to talk about her impending death, the march of time. They tiptoe through graveyards, childlike, trying to ignore the encroaching darkness.
But Enoch, as I said, is moribund. Depressed. He’s got issues that he’s yet to deal with, and a dying girlfriend isn’t going to help. His aunt (Jane Adams) suffers caring for him after the death of his parents, and he’s apparently haunted by a ghost named Hiroshi (Ryo Kase), a World War II Kamikaze with a passion for Battleship. Enoch blames his aunt for the fact that his parents are dead, and, as his relationship with Annabel deepens, he begins pushing away Hiroshi, who doubts that dating a girl on the verge of death is healthy.
There’s a lot on the fringes of Restless. It is implied that Enoch may have tried to commit suicide. Hiroshi may be a figment of his imagination. He doesn’t go to school. He’s prone to outbursts. All of this is quite overwhelming, an avalanche of emotional detail not usually contained by a single movie. Annabel is his center, but that, as they say, cannot hold. She’s a girl interested in ornithology and Darwin, not ready to die but aware that she can’t go on. She’s told by the staff at the cancer ward that she’s brave for going through her ordeal and wonders what the cancer patients who aren’t brave must be like.
It’s a fair question, and a somewhat tacit incitement of film characters with terminal illnesses, who are almost always flawless paragons of virtue, waiting for death to canonize them. Annabel Cotton, too, is one of these flawless sufferers—she certainly doesn’t look like cancer’s ravaging her, doesn’t often appear to be in pain—but she’s optimistic and steadfast where other films would paint her as the cloying stereotype. Given three months to live, she lives them quietly, with resolve. She doesn’t climb a mountain. She doesn’t abandon ship. She isn’t enshrined by those around her. She’s selfish, sometimes, and always human. Sad as it is to say, that’s a pretty big accomplishment for a movie with terminal illness at its center.
Wasikowska is the most compelling aspect of the film, as she finds a way to navigate the shark-filled waters of her role without being mauled. She’s a waif and a manic pixie girlfriend in equal measure, and she’s good in that role, but the moments where she’s determined to not be Enoch’s coping mechanism are surprising in their weight and authenticity. Unfortunately, she’s destined to be just that, like the equally-interesting Hiroshi—a compelling character in the corners of another, less compelling life. Enoch’s circumstances are unfortunate, true, but even tugging at the heartstrings with all his might, he fails to earn any sympathy.
Despite that, Restless manages to be a compelling, fresh movie. I wonder at what would have resulted had Annabel not been sick, or had her tumor factored into the plot as more than the film’s ticking time bomb, and I’m appreciative if a film manages to stir-up wonder. Though quiet, at the film’s core runs the intense machinery of desire. Like time, it never stops marching.
Restless. Directed by Gus Van Sant. With Harry Hopper (Enoch Brae), Mia Wasikowska (Annabel Cotton), Ryo Kase (Hiroshi), Jane Adams (Mabel), and Schuyler Fisk (Elizabeth Cotton). Released September 16, 2001, by Sony Pictures Classics.