Directed by Gus Van Sant
Produced by Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, Bryce Dallas Howard & Van Sant
Written by Jason Lew
Released by Sony Pictures Classics
USA. 93 min. PG-13
With Henry Hopper, Mia Wasikowska, Ryo Kase, Schuyler Fisk, Jane Adams, Chin Han & Lusia Strus
All this work we do as people. It can feel downright useless. When so much of our lives are left to chance, and chance can offer so much pain, it’s sometimes hard not to feel defeated. Teenagers Annabel and Enoch (breakout star Mia Wasikowska and newcomer Henry Hopper) meet by such capricious chance at a funeral. Annabel is an invited guest, but Enoch is crashing—a symptom of a morbid streak he’s developed after the sudden death of his parents. Though Annabel is a terminal cancer patient with precious few months to live, you’d never know it from her sparkling demeanor. Fate (and Shakespeare scholars) would call this a tragedy in the making. Gus Van Sant calls it a perfect match.
What’s inspiring to Van Sant, though problematic for me, is the perfection these two lovebirds possess—outside of their respective fates, of course. For one, they’re two of the prettiest people you could put in front of a camera. Henry, the son of the late, legendary Dennis Hopper, is a tall drink of water with mussed hair, a penetrating blue stare, and a subtly tapered jaw line, like Prussian royalty. Looking at Mia Wasikowska, with her close-cropped hair and perpetual gleeful smile, is like looking into the sunset. Van Sant, in typical fashion, finds one or two interesting camera maneuvers to strengthen an already stunning mise-en-scène, and voila, one of the best-looking films of the year emerges. And two, chance has actually brought this pair together! Boy (who likes death) meets girl (who is dying).
Enoch is actually more comfortable conversing with ghosts than he is live people. Unfortunately, his best friend, a ghost of a young Japanese World War II fighter pilot named Hiroshi (Ryo Kase), quickly becomes jealous of his new interest. Meanwhile, Annabel’s overprotective sister (Schuyler Fisk, daughter of the equally legendary Sissy Spacek) keeps a watchful eye on Enoch. It’s one of a series of discomforting, and surprising, by-the-book decisions in an otherwise auteur-ish piece, and thus I wonder at the impetus for the film. It truly feels like it was made for lack of a better idea. Apart from some insight on existence and one or two brilliant moments between these capable actors, the film is underdeveloped. Remembering Van Sant to be a self-described Shakespeare buff, I wonder why not just do a Romeo and Juliet remake? If Milk was the “one for the studio” and this is the one for him, I’m afraid he’s missed an opportunity.
I also don’t love his direction of the lead couple. Hopper does his best James Franco, while Wasikowska is a Samantha Morton type, and the passivity in both is palpable. These kids come from an entire generation for whom it’s of great importance to have “interests.” You’ve seen them before. These types—who appreciate found art, amateur photography, have a favorite Romantic poet, and dress in the height of hipster fashion—are getting a little too easy to write. Annabel never really creates anything, at least as far as we see here, and I’m not sure what the kids are passionate about apart from being unique. They feel endearing to us, though what do we really value in them? Neither accomplishes much besides working through the bumps in their modest romance, and being pretty.
I suppose coming to grips with the evanescence of existence can be a little distracting. Annabel and Enoch see it as just another pursuit, though. By the time they’re playing out Annabel’s death scene and arguing over which metaphors in their script work, you might be just as confused as they are over whether to see fate as a perpetual downer or more of a liberating force—an excuse to throw caution to the wind and actually live the life you can best imagine for yourself. In its simplistic construction, I’m not sure this film contains real answers to a dilemma like that, but at the very least, what these two poor victims of chance learn is something you might take with you for a long time.