Who needs another teenage rites of passage story? Was my first thought on hearing about Restless (US, 91 mins). After all, it must be at least, what, 5 minutes since the last one came along? A genre more reliable than London buses.
But as the reveals start rolling we realise this is an onion film. As each layer is uncovered in the two youngsters' lives Restless becomes a serious, intelligent and absorbing exploration of some of the challenging issues that face humans at all stages of life. More existential drama than just another teen opera.
Henry (Son of Dennis) Hopper's Enoch is an obnoxious, self-absorbed, narcissist. A standard adolescent male in other words. Indulging in his weirdo hobby / compulsion of attending funerals of people he does not know he hooks up with Mia Wasikowska's elfin Annabel, coiffed like a young Jean Seberg in Breathless. Together they embark on what at first seem to be routine teen adventures of outsiderness, not being understood, and dressing weirdly.
Gus Van Sant is a curious director. With just 14 feature films in 26 years he does not quite compare with Terrence Malick's conservative output of 5 in 38. But it makes clear he is not a standard Hollywood creature. Just as Malick spends much time being a philosopher and seeker after spiritual truth, Wikipedia sums Van Sant up as a "director, screenwriter, painter, photographer, musician and author". Gosh.
This neo-Renaissance man positions himself firmly and effectively in that widening gulf between arthouse and blockbuster. At his more commercial end, Good Will Hunting (1997) and Milk (2008) both attracted Academy Awards. At the art end of the scale 2003's Elephant won the Palme d'Or at Cannes. Truly Van Sant can claim to be the King of US Indie. Restless is somewhere in the middle, made with just a $14 million budget but produced by Ron Howard's company, Imagine.
All of those films conform to a pattern which had already emerged in Van Sant's second and third movies - Drugstore Cowboy (1989) and My Own Private Idaho (1991) - an apparent obsession with social outsiders, whether adolescents or older. Drug addicts, hustlers, Uma Thurman with mutant giant thumbs, unrecognised maths genius cum janitor Matt Damon, gay politician and civil rights trailblazer Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) etc., etc.
So in Restless it's more of the same with troubled youth. To get to the deeper stuff Van Sant teases his audience by immersing us in wave after wave of teen movie cliches.
In Enoch / Hopper's first shot we immediately know he is weird, as both his tie and hair are awry. In his second shot we discover that he dresses weirdly, all Edwardian jackets and fob chains, but worn with Doc Martins or motorcyle boots - think Lindsay Anderson's If meets The Wild One. He is soon seen at one of the crashed funerals insensitively, but artistically, making a sculpture out of buffet items.
Enoch is spotted by Annabel / Wasikowska, who immediately fancies him. As she, like him, enjoys dressing in all black she presumably has noticed the opportunity for them to recreate the Christian Slater / Winona Ryder teen outsider couple of Heathers. She too is a walking teen movie reference. When not dressed like Winona Ryder she appears to be channeling that other teen Queen of the 80s, Molly Ringwald - all pink or retro or fake leopard. Before our very eyes the pair embodies the irony of the outsider teen dilemma - the only way to Be Myself is to dress like every other outsider teen.
In case this is not yet enough to establish classic teen movie credentials, Enoch has an imaginary friend, like Jake Gyllenhaal in Donnie Darko. And there's a train / bridge / river sequence that must reference Stand By Me.
So now to repeat: all these teen movie cliches are not there to reprise a John Hughes high school rom com of the 80s, but to set us up with a study of human beings facing difficulties we will all face in our lives. In the case of the young couple in Restless these challenges just happen to land on top of the hormonal struggles of their age.
Henry Hopper is excellent as angry Enoch. Dennis, of course, had his own teen movie credentials, having uniquely appeared in no less than two out of James Dean's three films, including the iconic Rebel Without A Cause. Henry frequently looks spookily like his father, and while playing an angry adolescent he nonetheless manages a performance far calmer, more measured, than many of his Dad's. Aged 20 and in only his second feature I found this an impressive effort.
Even better is Wasikowska as Annabel. While she looks about 15 in the movie, she's the older of the pair at 21, and Restless is her 10th film. This young Australian won a host of awards and nominations for both Alice In Wonderland and The Kids Are Alright (both 2010). After that she graduated to playing Jane Eyre in the 2011 British version.
Wasikowska's apparently grounded, mature Annabel is counterpoint to the alternatively suppressed and explosive rage of Hopper's Enoch. And yet it is Annabel who we discover has the more serious challenge to face. It is in witnessing her almost serene adaptation to her difficulties that Enoch gains perspective on his own troubles and hence gains the insight required for all rites of passage movies.
Even after we get deeper into the onion layers, is Restless still cliched, corny, schmaltzy even? That will depend perhaps on your own personal reaction. On Rotten Tomatoes it has a, to me, astonishingly low rating of only 38% fresh. On the other hand it was selected for the Un Certain Regard strand at Cannes for films that are "original and different".
I was held by Restless from the excellent opening credits, intellectually stimulated throughout the middle, and moved by the end. Despite being three decades beyond adolescence I found myself both thinking and emoting about a host of episodes from my own life.
Go and see it and make up your own mind.