Restless - Mia Wasikowska and Henry Hopper
Annabel (Mia Wasikowska) and Enoch (Henry Hopper) © 2009 Columbia TriStar

Two quirky oddballs who enjoy attending the funerals of strangers begin an improbable love affair that ends with a death and a spiritual rebirth. That’s the premise of both 1971’s offbeat and original Harold and Maude and this irritatingly precious teen romance.

Restless substitutes a relentlessly perky adolescent named Annabel (Mia Wasikowska) for Ruth Gordon’s sassy septuagenarian Maude. Where Maude was determined to commit suicide on her 80th birthday, Annabel’s ticket out is a terminal brain tumor. Fortunately, Annabel’s ailment is one of those happy-go-lucky movie cancers that gives characters a peaches-and-cream glow and doesn’t impede their ability to bicycle, play badminton, go canoeing, practice fencing and learn karate until the big departure date arrives.

Hiroshi (Ryo Kase) © 2009 Columbia TriStar

In Harold and Maude, Bud Cort’s twitchy and antisocial Harold stages fake suicides including seppuku, a ritual Japanese form of disembowelment. In Restless, Henry Hopper is a sad-sack orphan named Enoch whose only friend — the ghost of a World War 2 kamikaze pilot named Hiroshi (Ryo Kase) — tells him how to commit seppuku. They also play the game Battleship a lot, which Hiroshi says he always wins thanks to “instinct.”

Level-headed and quietly thoughtful Hiroshi turns out to be the movie’s most interesting character, although his presence presents a major plot problem. We are led to believe that Hiroshi is a real ghost, not an imaginary friend. That’s not consistent with Enoch’s bitter claim that death is the empty void of nothingness he saw when he was clinically dead for three minutes after the car accident that killed his parents. Also, since Hiroshi can make contact from the other side, why can’t he round up Enoch’s mom and dad — so the emotionally devastated Enoch can say the final goodbye he never got to convey to them?

Director Gus Van Sant keeps everything so trance-inducingly low key that a brief car chase and a short hospital outburst seem very out of place. Also, most of the movie looks as if it were shot through gauze, or could have used a bigger lighting budget. Crisp it isn’t.

Jason Lew’s screenplay saddles Annabel with what are supposed to be charmingly wacky character traits including hero worship for Charles Darwin (she tells his poster “goodnight, Charlie” before retiring) and an obsession with water fowl. Wasikowska, who was so enjoyable in last year’s Alice in Wonderland and The Kids Are All Right, la-la-la’s her way through Restless like a blissfully untroubled lobotomy patient with a lot of unlikely hats.

Henry Hopper, a dead ringer for his late father Dennis Hopper, has two primary emotions as Enoch: He’s either morosely troubled by lingering grief, or reluctantly amused by Annabel’s antics. His character’s attire includes a cord-tied dressing gown and what looks like an undertaker’s frock coat, he lives in a spooky old house, he gets sick in cars and at one point he hangs out with Annabel in a morgue. How eccentric!

Interestingly, Annabel and Enoch never mention the subject of religion when discussing Annabel’s upcoming expiration date. The subject simply never arises. On the secular side, a chat about Annabel leaving her body to science includes her observation that “I think I might like to have my eyes in a jar,” which sounds more dumb than dark.

The movie’s message, summed up by Hiroshi as “we have so little time to say any of the things we mean,” is one that always resonates. It’s too bad Restless couldn’t say it with more originality, believability or genuine feeling.


James Dawson

Jim is Film Review Online's Los Angeles based reviewer. More by James Dawson