Meeting celebrated auteur, Gus Van Sant, to discuss his fourteenth feature film, RESTLESS, at the Toronto International Film Festival, certainly had my nerves on edge, given that I’m a bit of an admirer of his. It didn’t help matters much when he would pause and stare at me blankly for five or ten seconds after almost every question I asked. Fortunately, I realized very quickly that I was not the problem.
“You can definitely become overworked talking to the press,” Van Sant admits to me of the whirlwind that is the contemporary festival experience. “When I hit the five-hour mark, I start to get pretty spaced out.” Our interview was his last before lunch so that explained a lot.
The 59-year-old director returns to cinemas this fall with his first film since his 2008 masterpiece, MILK, which earned eight Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture as well as a second Best Director nod for Van Sant. (His first was for 1997’s GOOD WILL HUNTING.) And while RESTLESS is nowhere near as politically charged as MILK was, it does allow Van Sant to continue giving voices to the marginalized and the misunderstood. In his own words, “It’s a really interesting story about these two kids that are forced outside of their society. They bond together and become very close. It reminded me of a French love story.”
By French, he must mean tragic because what forces these two outside of their circles is death. Everyone’s favorite indie darling, Mia Wasikowska and endearing newcomer, Henry Hopper, play the two particular kids in question. Hopper is Enoch, a high school dropout who lost his parents in a car accident and now keeps the company of what is either the ghost of a Japanese kamikaze pilot (Ryo Kase) or a very creative imaginary friend. Wasikowska plays Annabel, a free-spirited naturalist, who has just learned that she is going to die of cancer in a few short months. Their relationship and its youthful naiveté give Restless its unexpected whimsy.
The relief Enoch and Annabel find in each other is what drew Van Sant to the Jason Lew screenplay to begin with. “It’s common with younger cancer patients that they often make new friends with strange people,” he explains of their attraction. “Their regular support group is too devastated to keep their normal relationship going, because of the sadness.” Subsequently, the charming couple provide the audience with some much needed relief from their reality as well.
Coming of age in the face of death is a dichotomy that is not often explored on film and the wide spectrum of emotion that is inherent to the scenario makes RESTLESS a unique film experience. Still, Van Sant himself has a hard time differentiating it from his past work to some extent. “They pretty much all stand apart but at the same time, they’re all related,” he says of how RESTLESS figures amongst his oeuvres. When hard pressed though, Van Sant is able to give a tiny distinction to RESTLESS. “It’s the first time I’ve done something mirthful and yet tragic at the same time.”
Hopefully, it will not be his last.
This interview originally appeared in Hour Community.