Review: Mia Wasikowska is luminous in Gus Van Sant’s sweet ‘Restless’

In the first season of HBO’s “In Treatment,” Mia Wasikowska gave a performance as Sophie, a potential Olympic gymnast who sabotaged her own chances, that immediately put her on my radar as a brilliant, gifted, intuitive actor.  Since then, she’s done solid work but hasn’t really had a role as good, something where she could show off just how special her abilities really are.

Thank god, then, for Gus Van Sant’s “Restless.”

Van Sant, no stranger to the Cannes Film Festival, has always been something of a chameleon in his filmmaking voice, and I’m not really sure “Restless” has an easy comparison in his filmography.  It is sweet, simple, eccentric, and gentle.  It is a film about grief, but it is anything but depressing.  There is a lyrical quality to it that caught me off-guard, and in the end, I surrendered myself to its charms completely.

Enoch Brae (Henry Hopper) is adrift in grief at the beginning of the film, unable to process the death of his parents, and he has begun attending funerals and memorial services for strangers as a hobby.  At one of them, he catches the eye of Annabel Cotton (Wasikowska), who finds herself immediately drawn to this strange young man.  Both of them seem inordinately young in many ways, emotional children, and they seem to immediately recognize one another as kindred spirits.  When Enoch realizes that Annabel is dying, diagnosed with a brain tumor that will kill her inside three months, he is forced to finally deal with all of his feelings about life, death, and being left behind.

Simple enough.  As a scenario, Jason Lew’s script is fairly direct.  What makes it work for me is the way Van Sant details the budding relationship between the kids, and the effect it has on the people around them.  There is a permissiveness that surrounds both of them for different reasons, and they take advantage of that indulgence, losing themselves in this sweet little love story for as long as they can.  Once reality comes crashing in, I expected the movie to get heavy and dark, but Van Sant’s not interested in that.  Wasikowska has typically been cast so far as the gloomy girl, the moody young thing, and it’s funny that being cast as a girl dying of a brain tumor results in the sunniest, sweetest, most open performance she’s given so far.  It is easy to see why Enoch is drawn to her, and vice-versa.  She knows she’s only got one real shot at romance, and she’s not looking for someone who is going to treat her like a dying girl or a tragic figure.  She wants someone who will enjoy that brief time with her, play games, keep her young.  She couldn’t have wished for a more appropriate playmate than Enoch, and that almost-chaste nature of their time together is a big part of the appeal.

Hopper and Wasikowska both have very tricky roles to play here, and the movie either lives or dies as a duet between the two of them.  It is a real testament to their abilities that they manage to make this script come to life in a way that feels so natural.  This is a very calculating script in some ways, and yet it always feels natural in the way they play the material.  Hopper has some of the same energy that his father, Dennis Hopper, had when he was young, but leavened with a sweet, spacey charm that his dad never displayed.  Both of them feel to me like actors on the verge of long and fascinating careers, and “Restless” is a great showcase for what they are capable of.

There’s not a lot of supporting cast, since the film’s focus is fairly intimate, but Ryo Kase and Schuyler Fisk both deserve special mention for their work.  Kase stars as Hiroshi, a Kamikaze pilot’s ghost who is Enoch’s main companion and friend, and what should be a terrible conceit that annoys manages to work because of his performance and the natural, matter of fact way that Van Sant stages his scenes.  Fisk plays Elizabeth, the older sister to Annabel, and they have so many lovely moments together, beats that underline the reality of the situation without being maudlin, that she really is a perfect example of what a supporting player should do… support.

Van Sant has been doing this long enough now that he makes it all look simple.   By now, he and cinematographer Harris Savides have worked together enough times that their collaborations feel perfectly synched.  Savides doesn’t just paint with light, he also knows how to suggest emotional states with his imagery.  Danny Elfman’s score, wrapped around some very canny song choices, is very different than his typical work, perfectly suited to the film.

“Restless” is just eccentric enough that some viewers will react badly to it, but it is that very specific voice that I responded to.  So often, death in film is an excuse to make a “serious” movie, ladling on the sorrow, but Van Sant and his cast took Lew’s script as a challenge to make a film about this subject that feels almost celebratory.  The fact that they pulled it off is a sweet surprise, indeed.

“Restless” will be released in the US on September 16, 2011.