Melinda Grant (Sandra Dee) leads a sheltered life. As often happens in a Dee film, her character's innocence is at risk. In this film, what's at stake are her innocent notions about romance, her uninformed understanding of her family history, her above-reproach reputation. The tension lies between those who wish to alter these things and those who wish to preserve them.
The Restless Years is one of those suburban dramas that we've discussed before - the kind of film that exposes the rotten core of a "good" apple. They seem to say, "This could be your town."
Melinda's widowed mother Elizabeth Grant (Teresa Wright) has never healed from some unknown psychological trauma which has left her a recluse. Melinda is subject to the same lifestyle and often parents her parent.
Everywhere but school is off limits to the daughter, including the bandstand on the hill, especially the bandstand on the hill. The mother mentions that bandstand so much, you wouldn't fault a kid's curiosity about what makes a crumbling gazebo so powerful as to illicit screams from her mother at the mere thought of it.
School is an escape from the confusion. Even there, however, life for the young lady is unpleasant. Popular kids taunt Melinda for not having a social life.
Enter Will Henderson (John Saxon), the son of a traveling salesman with a knack for sizing up new schools and a strong affinity for the underdog. He instantly gravitates towards Melinda, despite rumors that the Grants are nutty.
|Melinda's costume gives Will ideas.|
Revelations about Polly's parents, Will's parents and Melinda's family history with that benighted bandstand might ruin everyone's carefully-preserved public image.
Based on a Patricia Joudry play, called "Teach Me to Cry," where stone-faced Melinda learns to emote through acting and cultivating a relationship with Will, Restless strays from the play. In casting a warm actor like Sandra Dee, Melinda is immediately a relatable, human character responding to her problems as any teen might. From stage to screen, the story is no longer a strange teen in a fairly normal world, but a mature teen in a weird community.
With all the hubbub happening at once, some of the story lines are never resolved - not in that wonderful, "I wonder how it ends after "The End" kind of way" (as in The Heiress) but in that "Well, that subplot was completely pointless" kind of way.
It still works.
Sandra Dee and John Saxon also play opposite each other in The Reluctant Debutante with Kay Kendall and Rex Harrison. As charming as they are in the urbane comedy Debutante, I prefer the grody-ness of their situation in Restless. There is no one to rescue them; anything can happen, which keeps you guessing.
Watch The Restless Years for beautifully nuanced performances from Dee and Saxon.