Filmmaker-auteur Gus Van Sant continues his move away from the mainstream and into the experimental-laced indie streak of 2002's "Gerry," 2003's "Elephant
," and 2005's "Last Days
" with "Paranoid Park," an impressionistic slice of teen angst based on the novel by Blake Nelson. Introspective and deliberately paced, but no less fascinating because of this, the film's emotions, like that of its lead character, are bottled up inside, on the constant verge of exploding. In its moments of quiet reflection, however, emerges something deeper than what one has been programmed to expect from the genre.
Told through the stream-of-consciousness writings of Portland teen Alex (Gabe Nevins), writer-director Gus Van Sant takes his time revealing the whole picture, turning back on the story's timeline throughout to fill in gaps and answer questions as Alex remembers to include him. The conflict he gets himself into begins with the skate park of the title, where Alex first goes with friend Jared (Jake Miller) and then returns to by himself one lazy Friday night. Tempted by the offer of an older guy he meets there, Alex's joyride on the side of a nearby freight train leads to an accident that leaves a security guard dead. Ill-equipped to deal with something that seems so much larger than himself, his initial self-reasoning and bargaining quickly leads to paranoia and painful feelings of guilt.
When a police investigator starts questioning the known skaters at his high school, the viewer expects that the film's focus will move to whether or not Alex is going to get caught or break under pressure. Instead, the investigation leads to dead ends and, as far as Alex can tell, he's destined to get away with a single committed action that accidentally caused the brutal death of an innocent authority figure just doing his job. Even so, how is Alex going to make amends with himself for what he did and learn to move on? It is this moral quandary that "Paranoid Park" is most interested it, and it lifts the film, which at times appears to be meandering to an unspecial destination, above typical teen slices-of-life and murder mysteries. The unpredictable conclusion, which wraps around to the beginning and answers why Alex has begun to write about the incident, is subtle and understatedperhaps too subtle and understated for some audiencesbut equally striking and dramatically sound. The use of the gorgeous song, "Angeles," by Elliott Smith, compliments these late scenes.
In less controlled hands than Van Sant's, "Paranoid Park" might have come off as amateurish and possibly pretentious. There is a fair share of skateboarding footage that doesn't really go anywhere and too many slow-motion shots of characters walking and thinking to count. By slowing things down and demanding the viewer concentrate on what is happening in Alex's mind even when he's silent, the movie happily treats us as equal participants just as adept in drawing our own conclusions and working out the same crime in our own heads that Alex is grappling with.
The cast, almost all of them first-time actors save for former child star Taylor Momsen (2000's "How the Grinch Stole Christmas
") as Alex's immature sort-of girlfriend Jennifer, are decidedly rough around the edges and have zero actorish pretenses. This works, however, since the bulk of them are playing modern-day disaffected youths not yet entirely comfortable in their own skins. As Alex, Gabe Nevins is in nearly every shot, and has a great face in the way that he is able to express so much with so little. He doesn't strain for the viewer's sympathy, and yet we find ourselves caring about him. As gal pal Macy, whom Alex finds himself able to confide in when he has nowhere else to turn, Lauren McKinney is naturalistic and effortlessly charismatic.
Compared to Gus Van Sant's staggeringly powerful "Elephant
" and "Last Days
," "Paranoid Park" is the lesser of the three, more reserved and not quite packing the same ultimate punch. As its own entity, though, it is yet another accomplished, stylistically courageous work from a filmmaker whose willingness to take chances and pull them off is his finest attribute. "Paranoid Park" does not side with Alex, or condemn him, but simply and provocatively asks the viewer to question what they would do in the same situation while understanding the choices Alex must make for himself.