Sony knew that Gus Van Sant's Restless was a tweener. It's neither an art film that plays for highbrow critics looking for discovery or depth, nor a mainstream entertainment aimed at teens. The movie is what it is: a sweet unpretentious coming-of-age love story that doesn't over-reach.
Hollywood does not lend itself to this sort of fare; there's no money in it. So how did this get made? Well, Ron Howard's daughter Bryce Dallas Howard developed NYU classmate Jason Lew's script, based on short plays and stories about a Japanese spirit who comes to the aid of sick children--backed by her father Ron Howard's company, Imagine Entertainment. Gus Van Sant, who had made Psycho with Imagine, took on the project. Van Sant is that rare filmmaker who isn't hung up about questions of commerciality and scale. He likes to make small, unpretentious movies like this: it's more expensive than an indie and less costly than a studio movie. In other words, it's a tweener.
That is why Sony pushed the film back from its initial Sundance berth (it was the first picture selected last year), to give Van Sant more time to play with the edit, and waited for Cannes auteur Van Sant to land his usual festival berth. But it was significant when the romance was not only given to Sony Pictures Classics to release, but was announced not as a competition entry, but as the opening for sidebar Un Certain Regard. This reduced its expectations, says SPC's Michael Barker, who compares it to Blue Valentine or Precious, which also played in that section. "It's one of those gentle romantic dramas, all about character," he says. "Gus so knows how to tell a story like this."
What many critics seem to overlook here is how awful this movie could have been if directed by anyone else. Delicate Australian actress Mia Wasikowska plays a charming teen whose hair is growing back after extensive chemo therapy; her family is having a tough time with the fact that she hasn't got much time. She's grabbing what she has left, to pursue an affair with another teenager (Henry Hopper, Dennis's son) who has been kicked out of school. Think about the alternative movie: cloying, sentimental. The film could have gone wrong in so many ways. Yet Van Sant is sure-handed, precise, cool; he finds quirky details in the sets, props and costumes, and has fun with his actors and the Pacific Northwest setting.
"I was attracted to this because it was something I'd seen before," said Van Sant at a Cannes beachside roundtable interview. "A boy in Paranoid Park had survived cancer at eight years old. He was small for 13. I was working next door to a painter who was working as an art therapist, bringing supplies to a child patient. He was having a fundraiser in his office and the kids were there. They were often left alone, and he was the one they would make friends with, like a playmate. Death is often the way to show the life in characters. Like Good Will Hunting, the story is not the central feature." Van Sant often returns to this terrain, where young people wander aimlessly without cars, money, or goals. "Teenage life is a place, a platform where I can tell my story."
"It deals with something not often spoken about," Wasikowska said at Cannes. "Gus is very calm." She praised Van Sant for his use of a "silent take" after every scene. "It's so natural."
"I heard that Terrence Malick does silent takes," said Van Sant. "I sometimes use parts of a scene that had no words, to break from dialogue. On Milk and Restless, I did it on each shot. I'll edit a whole silent version of the movie for the DVD."
Check out the movie for yourself when it opens September 16. In the meantime, here's a sampling of the critical reaction:
Stephanie Zacharek, Movieline:
"The picture (which opens the festival’s Un Certain Regard sidebar) is so fluttering and tender, so guileless, that you almost can’t believe it was made by an old hand like Van Sant. Then again, maybe you can…Do they still make young people like this? I’m not sure. But Van Sant, I think, is wishing they did. It’s hard to say exactly when Restless is supposed to be set, but it doesn’t feel contemporary."
Eric Kohn, indieWIRE:
"There’s a nice dimension of sarcasm to their outlooks, which the actors demonstrate best in a bit of playacting when Enoch and Annabel pretend they’re older characters living out a romantic tragedy. However, their shared innocence is framed with flat, TV-ready direction that eventually grows thin. From start to finish, it’s a mostly passive affair, the sort of rudimentary two-hander we’ve seen countless times before. Van Sant is capable of much deeper portraits of isolated youth, but in this case he lets the rudimentary script simply run its course."
"Simple to a fault, this romantic melodrama between two doomed youngsters lacks the nuance, dramatic tension, and bravura visual style we have come to expect from Van Sant. Restless is anything but what its title suggests or implies. The movie unfolds as a rather static, emotionally inert tale, which goes through the familiar motions of death and dying without leaving much of an impact."
Andrew Pulver, The Guardian:
"Restless, essentially, is Van Sant's take on the adorably quirky awkward-teen comedy of the Juno/Rushmore/Submarine mould…Restless's main problem is that, although barely a minute of screen time goes by without some adorable quirk revealing itself, it's essentially dramatically inert. For all their soppy looks and histrionic yakking, there's very little chemistry between the leads, which might have made up for it."
Todd McCarthy, THR:
"The most banal and indulgent of Gus Van Sant’s periodic studies of troubled kids, this agonizingly treacly tale comes off like an indie version of Love Story except with worse music. Gullible teen girls represent the target audience for this Sony Pictures Classics release, as most people of voting age will blanch at such a cutesy depiction of adolescent angst."
Mary Corliss, Time:
"Restless recedes from the mind even as it is being watched…What little emotive resonance Restless summons comes from the charm surgically implanted in it by the two attractive stars. Hopper — who looks like his dad as a teenager, crossed with a hint of James Dean — should some day be worth watching. Wasikowska always is, even here, where she gives her all to turning a romance-novel cliché into a good and trusting soul. She will be back in Cannes with better films."
Kaleem Aftab, The Independent:
"So successful has Gus Van Sant been in trying to make films with teen appeal that the 58-year-old has now started making movies resembling the work of film-school students…Restless has a more mainstream sensibility than his Palme d'Or winning high-school shooting drama Elephant, skateboard movie Paranoid Park and his almost silent homage to Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, Last Days. But it's also less insightful about America's youth than any of these efforts."