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My Own Private Idée Fixe

Restless (2011)

Scott Green/Sony Pictures Classics

Gus Van Sant seems to have devoted much of his filmography to rehearsing for that inevitable River Phoenix biopic. Indeed, the filmmaker has explored how young outcasts grapple with mortality from just about every angle — even the price-of-fame slant in the quasi-Kurt Cobain biopic “Last Days” — except one directly invoking Phoenix himself. Mr. Van Sant’s latest, “Restless,” continues this journeying, albeit this time in the timeworn boy-meets-terminally-ill-girl variety.

From the little-seen “Mala Noche” to the highly commercial “Good Will Hunting,” he has always been preoccupied with waifish offscourings. It’s almost perverse how he ogles each and every one of his twinkish, marginalized protagonists by lovingly doting on him with warm lighting and soft-focus close-ups courtesy of Harris Savides. But since Phoenix’s passing, Mr. Van Sant seems to literally work through his grieving process by adding the element of fatality to his favorite milieu, such as in “Gerry,” “Elephant,” “Last Days” and “Paranoid Park.”

It’s curious that Mr. Van Sant chooses to revisit the subject again after the triumphant “Milk,” but “Restless” does demonstrate that he has gotten a bit older and wiser. Henry Hopper (son of Dennis) is Mr. Van Sant’s muse du jour, playing the porcelain-skinned, perpetually nappy-headed and always-dressed-in-black high-school dropout named Enoch. Crashing funerals as a hobby, he meets the cancer-stricken but nevertheless pixie-like Annabel (Mia Wasikowska). He gradually lets down his guard and confides in her about the personal tragedy that has made him so antisocial.

Though it’s as unsentimental as Mr. Van Sant’s other films, screenwriter Jason Lew at least doesn’t keep the characters at arm’s length the way Mr. Van Sant does in his own scripts. In fact, one can safely conclude that Mr. Van Sant is most accomplished when directing other people’s screenplays. “Restless” exudes the maturity that eludes Mr. Van Sant’s previous fusions of youth and death. It’s too bad he still hasn’t learned to shower his female leads with the same adoring attention he lavishes on his male ones. The relatively more seasoned Ms. Wasikowska is neglected throughout the film, which lessens the impact of Annabel’s eventual demise.


Opens on Sept. 16 in New York and Los Angeles and on Oct. 21 in Britain.

Directed by Gus Van Sant; written by Jason Lew; director of photography, Harris Savides; edited by Elliot Graham; music by Danny Elfman; production design by Anne Ross; costumes by Danny Glicker; produced by Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, Bryce Dallas Howard and Mr. Van Sant; released by Sony Pictures Classics. Running time: 1 hour 33 minutes. This film is rated PG-13 by M.P.A.A. and PG by B.B.F.C.

WITH: Henry Hopper (Enoch Brae), Mia Wasikowska (Annabel Cotton), Ryo Kase (Hiroshi Takahasi), Schuyler Fisk (Elizabeth Cotton), Jane Adams (Mabel), Chin Han (Dr. Lee) and Lusia Strus (Rachel Cotton).


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