Directed by Gus Van Sant
Written by Jason Lew
Gus Van Sant is one of the most interesting filmmakers working today. He has been praised as one of the best by many people, at least when he is at his best, and he is definitely one of my favorite filmmakers because he is daring. The only person I could really compare him to is Steven Soderbergh. The two have the ability to direct major studio mainstream productions, and to great success, but they also have the ability to work outside the system and make some really unique, and really good, indie films which probably go under the radar for most casual movie goers. This 2011 film from Van Sant seems to be somewhat of a mix of the two, though it certainly slants to his independent work, but it isn’t nearly as experimental, or as brilliant, as films like Elephant or Paranoid Park.
Van Sant is not using completely unknown actors here; in fact, Annabel is played by one of the rising stars in Hollywood, Australian actress Mia Wasikowska, who is best known as playing Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. The star power does stop there, however. Henry Hooper plays Enoch, a troubled youth who spends his free time, of which he has plenty after having been expelled from school, crashing funerals of people he never knew. At one such funeral he meets a young girl, Annabel (Wasikowska), with whom he strikes up an unexpected friendship, which complicates, and in fact grows, when she reveals to Enoch that she is dying of cancer. The two fall in love, sharing their idiosyncrasies on life, each growing from knowing the other.
I really respect what Van Sant and screenwriter Jason Lew are trying to do here. They construct a film that is all about death and how different people take it in different ways. There is a light humor sprinkled throughout which reflects the true nature of the funeral as a celebration of life as opposed to the mourning of death. And the actions and conversations of Enoch and Annabel are admirable for a few young kids who have some issues. Enoch is developed quite nicely as a character, with a bit of mystery surrounding him until his past motivations are slowly revealed. And although Annabel is not scripted as deeply as Enoch, she is still fascinating to watch for her soft sweetness which is expressed so delicately and beautifully by the very talented Wasikowska. Henry Hooper is pretty good as Enoch as well.
And the two actors have great chemistry which aides in the development of the relationship itself, but really the success ends with the actors for the most part. Don’t get me wrong, the idea behind the film is good, but everything felt rushed, which is a shame for a film that was only 91 minutes to begin with. I was able to buy the love between Annabel and Enoch because of the expression of the actors and their chemistry, but the events that take place never seemed to add anything to the mix. And the pacing felt like a mess, especially when the two awkwardly play out Annabel’s “death scene”, which leads to a fight. What else did they expect to happen? Something sweet? With the brilliance of Hooper and Wasikowska, a better set up between the two would have made the end of the film that much bigger of a payoff than it already was. Despite the mess, there was still something bittersweet about the relationship that really worked.
I did enjoy the perspectives given on death, even from the completely convenient and manufactured ghost who accompanies Enoch, Hiroshi, a Japanese kamikaze pilot from World War II. The philosophies and thoughts the film brought me, along with enjoying seeing Wasikowska on screen, were enough to satisfy my viewing experience, but this falls far below the bar that Van Sant has set for himself, and this from a film which is not as experimental or daring as some of his other works, which is surprising. I would have figured when Van Sant hiccuped like this it would be from studio pressure on a mainstream film, or just simply going too far in one of his experiments. And maybe he just went too far with the indie quirk this time around.