A film of gorgeous, moody surfaces with virtually nothing beneath them, Restless takes place in a vision of Portland keyed into the angst of its young protagonist (Henry Hopper, son of Dennis, to whom the film is dedicated). Director Gus Van Sant, working with the great cinematographer Harris Savides, walks Hopper past skyline views, through leafy streets, and into woodsy outskirts, often to the accompaniment of delicate songs from Sufjan Stevens and Bon Iver. As a pure mood piece, it would be effective enough, in a superficial way, if the story didn’t demand a deeper investment. Somehow, Van Sant has made a film about life and death in which the stakes never seem higher than whether one insolent kid will stop being such a horrible mope.
Mia Wasikowska co-stars as a sunny, Charles Darwin-worshipping teenager who befriends Hopper after they meet at a funeral. The similarities to Harold And Maude don’t end there: Though no one would mistake Wasikowska for Ruth Gordon, she soon reveals she’s much nearer to the end of her life than the beginning, due to a brain tumor that’s left her with weeks to live. Together, Wasikowska and Hopper embark on a tentative romance. As Wasikowska prepares to die, struggling with an illness that only hinders her when it’s plot-convenient, Hopper takes solace in talking to his only friend: the ghost of a Japanese kamikaze pilot (Ryo Kase) who offers him advice between rounds of the board game Battleship.
A set-up that twee needs a lot of ballast to keep it from floating away. Van Sant’s direction and especially Wasikowska’s soulful performance almost provide it. Given a role that’s more quirky, life-affirming cliché than flesh-and-blood, Wasikowska creates a memorable character. She uses each smile as a small act of defiance without fully hiding her disappointment with the ticking clock. Hopper can’t return her volleys, however, and he never develops his character beyond a default sneer and a Gomez Addams-inspired vintage wardrobe. He begins the film pouty and callow, and for all the emoting the back half of Restless requires of him, he never seems to change much. Where Wasikowska finds depths not evident in the script (by first-time screenwriter Jason Lew), Hopper remains a slave to the page. If she’s going to quirk her way to an early grave just so he can feel better, shouldn’t he seem worth the effort?