Friday, September 30, 2011

Restless (2011)

MPAA (PG-13) CNS/USCCB () Roger Ebert (3 Stars) Fr. Dennis (2 Stars)

IMDb listing -
CNS/USCCB review -
Roger Ebert's review -

Restless (directed by Gus Van Sant, written by Jason Lew) is a teen/young adult oriented movie about death.  That may seem initially like a rather grim subject matter.  But when one thinks about it, a fair number of teens with the world in front of them and also having some experience of tragedy, do at times ask or even focus on "big questions:" what's the meaning of it all? why death? why even the unfairness of death/tragedy?

In the past, elders would sit the youngsters down and basically tell them "listen up, this is how it is" (and proceed to give them a lesson on the traditional, received truths of one's religion or culture).  Restless, in line with much modern culture, seems to take the opposite tack of having the young people involved simply assemble their own stories and understandings of these questions without much/any reference to traditional systems of belief.

I "get" that this is part of a continued reaction to past more authoritarian approaches to religion and the general forming of the young. I also "get" that tragedy often leaves any ready-pat explanation "wanting" (witness, indeed Job's complaint in the biblical Book of Job).  And also there's something fresh/innocent about young people batting around troughts / ideas as they struggle to make sense of their lives (and sense of tragedies that they encounter in their lives).

That be said, there's also something (and I believe that teens would understand this, as I mean it exactly in exactly the way they would say it) arrogant about simply ignoring the received wisdom of thousands of years of traditional culture (no matter what traditional culture it may be).  Because people are people and the same struggles and basic questions that confront us today, have confronted us since the beginning of time.  As the Church began its Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes) at the end of the Second Vatican Council (1965)"The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the [people] of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts." Why?  The Council writers continued: "For theirs is a community composed of [people]. United in Christ, they are led by the Holy Spirit in their journey to the Kingdom of their Father and they have welcomed the news of salvation which is meant for [everyone]. That is why this community realizes that it is truly linked with mankind and its history by the deepest of bonds. (GS #1)"  Perhaps summarizing this, though she would have never sat down to read The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, my own mother used to smile and remind me when I was being arrogant and rolling my eyes as a teen: "Son, there's nothing new under the sun." (Eccl 1:9).

So I do believe that there is lost when we choose to totally ignore the received wisdom of the past even as we try to defend the dignity of the present (both have their place).  And so I do feel that this movie (and other movies like it, that needlessly choose to pick a fight with religion) do fall shorter than necessary if only if they made a little better peace with the received wisdom of the past.

Very good then ... let's get to the movie ...

Enoch Brae (played by Henry Hopper) is a teen who's gone through a lot.  He lost his parents in an accident which had left him in a coma for three months.  Ever since then, he hasn't been the same.  Taken care of by his mother's sister, he's been thrown out of school for violently acting out.  Since then, he's taken to crashing other people's funerals -- he's always respectful but what the heck is he doing there? -- and hanging-with an invisible friend (a ghost?) named Hiroshi Takahashi (played by Ryo Kase) who he found at his bedside when he came out of his coma.  Hiroshi had died as a Japanese Kamikaze pilot at the end of World War II.  Together, they play the boardgame Battleship and Hiroshi always wins ;-).

At one of the funerals that Enoch crashes, he catches the eye of another teen, Anabel Cotton (played by Mia Wasikowska).  She finds it odd that he crashed her friend's funeral, but she saves him when a funeral director catches him and tries to expel him from the premises.  Anabel and Enoch then hit it off.

Anabel has her own issues.  She's dying of cancer.  So the two have death / near death in common.  Since Enoch had been clinically dead for several minutes and then in a coma for three months, Anabel asks Enoch what it was like.  He tells her about his invisible/ghost-like friend Hiroshi...

The banter through most of the movie is very much like that of typical teens, full of exaggerated certainty and innocence.  It's Halloween time (much of the movie's filmed in Portland Oregon).  So it's rainy, the leaves are falling, and there's a good amount of fog.  Enoch and Anabel decide to go trick-or-treating together.  He dresses (surprise) as a Japanese kamikaze pilot, Anabel to fit the theme as a geisha girl.  Hiroshi hands around as well.  At another time, the two, Anabel and Enoch play-out (and record) her "death scene" so that they "would be ready" for the drama when it comes.

Among the conversations that the two have, Anabel declares her love/fascination for Darwin.  "Why Darwin?" asks Enoch. Well she tells Enoch because "He was the smartest man in the world and saw the world for what it really is."  Enoch, unimpressed asks "What about Einstein?"  She let's the question go.  She simply likes Darwin.

This is the part of the movie that I found most irritating.  Why Darwin?  It's almost certainly a F-U a certain type of (Fundamentalist) Christianity that would insist on knowing all the answers and the movie's about two teenagers putting together from all but whole cloth their own answers.  (And here I'd note that the famous or infamous, depending on where a Catholic stands, the Second Vatican Council was exactly about trying to balance both the received faith of the past with experience of the present ...).  And so Anabel is dying, but somehow finds comfort in Darwin.  How?   None of us has a clue...

Near her death, Hiroshi starts acting as something of a guardian angel.  He was there to accompany Enoch in his trauma.  Now Anabel starts to see him as well, as death approaches her.  When she starts to see him, he's no longer in his Kamikaze uniform but dressed in a tuxedo and top hat (formal dress in Japan in the 1930s) ready to take her on her journey...

The imagery is lovely.  In the end, the story doesn't fall too far from the traditional religious apple cart.  I just found the reference to Darwin in an otherwise lovely (and sad) teenage story both needless and needlessly provocative. 

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