Movie review: ‘Paranoid Park’ a dreamlike work of art about disconnected youth
AP Movie Criti
Paranoid Park is for the most hardcore skateboarders only.
A severe cluster of concrete ramps, rails and ledges, it was built by and for kids on the fringe: the runaways, the druggies, the ones who hop freight trains from town to town with no particular place to go.
Gus Van Sant’s “Paranoid Park” isn’t for everybody, either, even though it is a bit more accessible than the other similarly ethereal films the writer-director has offered in recent years, “Last Days,” “Elephant” and “Gerry.” It’s also by far the best of the bunch.
Perhaps having source material to work from helps ” Van Sant’s script is based on a novel by Blake Nelson ” even though he’s taken that structure, tossed it in the air and turned it into a nonlinear narrative.
His subtly gripping story follows the teenage Alex (Gabe Nevins, a non-actor Van Sant found on MySpace), a skateboarder involved in the accidental death of a security guard near Paranoid Park in Portland, Ore. It’s a dreamlike pastiche of mounting guilt ” of the sounds and sensations that steadily wear on Alex’s conscience, despite his perpetually placid, often disconnected exterior.
Many viewers will complain that the film is painfully slow, but if you give it a chance, you’ll find it’s hypnotic, mesmerizing, gorgeous; it comes at you in pieces that initially don’t make sense, like life so often does. And while it may not appear on the surface as if much is going on, “Paranoid Park” is at once a murder mystery, a study of adolescent angst and a work of art.
Christopher Doyle, who’s provided the lush cinematography for many of Wong Kar-wai’s films, has created long, fluid takes on Super 8 of skateboarders zooming up and down and along steep edges, undulating in slow motion and setting an easy, early pace.
The quiet, low-key Alex longs to join them but knows he isn’t good enough. When a friend suggests they visit the place for the first time, he tries to encourage Alex by saying, “No one’s ever ready for Paranoid Park.” Besides, he’s too sweet and pampered in his suburban bubble to fit in with the tough kids. But those big, brown eyes of Nevins’ ” which make him look so cherubic at first ” take on a darker tone as the film progresses.
Jumping around in time, Alex writes in a notebook (and narrates in voiceover) about the events that took place one night at the skate park. At first it looks as if he’s making up a story for a creative writing assignment, his pencil neatly scrawling the words “Paranoid Park” at the top of a lined sheet of paper, over and over. But when he gets called out of class to speak with a police detective (Dan Liu) about where he was and what he was doing when the crime occurred, we know something very real is happening.
What follows is an out-of-order series of days and nights as Alex reflects on the people he met and the things he did while simultaneously trying to push those thoughts out of his mind. He drives in his car through the darkness in an intermittent rain, and the background music is a surreal, stream-of consciousness mix of classical and country with a little Elliott Smith tossed in (the late singer-songwriter was a fellow Portlander, like Van Sant and Nelson).
Is it on the radio or in his head? This is a director who makes films that look organic and effortless, yet we know he leaves nothing to chance. Later, he effectively combines the increasingly piercing sound of birds chirping with the pounding water as Alex takes a shower in a moment that’s the closest this kid ever comes to breaking down.
But the security guard’s death is the MacGuffin, you see. “Paranoid Park” is really about one young man during a pivotal and confusing point in his life. His parents are divorcing and fumbling to make the transition as painless as possible for Alex and his younger brother. (Except for the detective, Van Sant shoots all the adults in shadow, from the back or with their faces partially obscured. They aren’t nearly as important as this world these teens have created for themselves.)
He’s also vexed by the fact that his perky cheerleader girlfriend (Taylor Momsen from “Gossip Girl”) is pressuring him to have sex. They’re both virgins, but she’s still completely confident in bopping up to him at his locker and asking cheerfully, “Hey, babe, did you get the condoms yet?”
But Nevins never shows that his character is vexed, and that’s what’s so intriguing. With his scruffy hair and array of hoodies, he wanders the halls with his head down like everyone else and keeps his problems ” big and small, life and death ” to himself, as most boys his age would.
There is one moment, though, when he tries to articulate his insecurity and fear while talking to a classmate (the likable Lauren McKinney). “There’s, like, different levels of stuff,” he says, “and something’s happened to me.”
It’s not nearly as crowd-pleasing, but it’s a far more realistic depiction of how today’s youth communicate than any bon mot Ellen Page utters in “Juno.”
“Paranoid Park,” an IFC Films release, is rated R for some disturbing images, language and sexual content. Running time: 78 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.