Gus Van Sant’s 2011 film was widely disliked by critics at its release. Almost universally considered too frivolous for its subject matter, it got somewhat forgotten in the back-catalogue of Van Sant’s work. The story confronts love, death and illness with an almost scandalous lightness of touch. Discussions of death are accompanied by upbeat ragtime piano tunes and light is made of every possible situation. As such, the film treads the fine line between comedy and melodrama, the cutting and witty script counterbalancing the tragic storyline at every turn.
Henry Hopper and Mia Wasikowska give charmingly subtle performances as today’s star-crossed lovers. Hopper’s performance as Enoch Brae is especially impressive given his newcomer status. His interpretation of the off-beat troubled teen is perfectly complemented by Wasikowska’s gentle presence. What is so endearing about this film is its distinct adolescent quality. What many have seen as Van Sant ignoring the issues is merely the result of a profound insight into the teenage state of mind: the ability to deal with something by simply…not dealing with it. Indeed Hiroshi, the third main character is an embodiment of emotional displacement. Not a single one of them is able to confront their issues. It is not that they are unwilling. Throughout the film numerous attempts are made to discuss or solve these issues, in a mature and adult way, but the tragedy is that they are not adults. Their attempts are on occasion farcical, calling to mind Luhrmann’s inept Romeo and Juliet more than any realistic coping methods.
While the simple narrative would designate Annabel (Wasikowska) as the tragic victim, it soon becomes apparent that happiness and tragedy befall only those who cannot approach them positively. Enoch bears the full brunt of the tragedy that befalls these lovers only because he tries to engage with it, unlike Annabel who shrugs off her issues in a definitively carefree manner. The cinematography and direction are knowingly whimsical, romanticising every moment as if the whole film is already held in happy retrospect. This is a huge part of the film’s success. Were it to be more brutal in its approach there would be no hope, no catharsis, and ultimately no point in telling this story. Van Sant delivers a highly moving story with heartbreaking realism, the deepest sadness is both amplified and healed by the very joy it unwittingly contains.