Adolescent headspace: Gabe Nevins plays Alex in Gus Van Sant's "Paranoid Park." (Photo by Scott Green, courtesy IFC Films)

"Paranoid Park"

Dennis Harvey March 11, 2008

You’ve got to give Gus Van Sant credit for integrity. Just when he seemed on the verge of turning into just another Hollywood sellout—via the increasingly impersonal, decreasingly interesting mainstream likes of To Die For, Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester (not to mention the 101 percent useless Psycho)—he did a total about-face.

His four features since have been not just low-budget personal projects, but true art films in a rarefied, semi-abstract, greatly patience-demanding mode that went out of style somewhere around the time that Antonioni and Resnais movies stopped automatically getting U.S. distribution. Sure, Gerry had Matt Damon, while Elephant and Last Days had hot-button themes (school shootings and Kurt Cobain, respectively). Yet they were almost anti-narrative exercises, cryptic reveries that could hypnotize you to death.

I was mesmerized by Gerry and Elephant. Last Days left me cold. On another day, in a different mood, maybe those responses would have been reversed. But the point is: Gus Van Sant got invited to “the party” presumably everyone wants to crash. He looked around, scarfed some hors d’oeuvres, schmoozed—and then went back to his garret. In addition to many shorts, his first features Mala Noche, Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho and even the widely, excessively despised Even Cowgirls Get the Blues were the works of an utterly unique cinematic poet. And remarkably, after Van Sant’s subsequent sojourn into the commercial mainstream, he returned to his experimental roots. In fact, these recent movies are more avant-garde in tenor than Mala Noche.

Well, maybe not Paranoid Park. Though it will be inevitably lumped in with the just-prior threesome, this latest Van Sant is in fact much more accessibly conventional in storytelling terms than Last Days, Gerry or Elephant—even if he did scramble the structure of Blake Nelson’s original young-adult novel. (This only serves to make Paranoid Park more effective as a quasi-mystery, though.) Cast mostly with non-professional actors, this is a movie that depends little on “acting” (let alone dialogue), yet feels as though it conjures a entire adolescent headspace more credibly than all Juno’s endless cut-glass verbiage. It’s also heavily ambiguous, haunting, often stunningly beautiful to look at and listen to.

Alex (Gabe Nevins) is a blankly baby-faced Portland high schooler and insecure skateboarder—“I’m not very good yet,” he says—going through some difficulties he doesn’t have the words or will at present to articulate. His uncomfortably estranged parents are about to divorce; his cheerleader girlfriend (Taylor Momsen of TV’s Gossip Girl) wants a more committed relationship than he’s ready for. He’d rather spend his time with best bud and fellow skater Jared (Jake Miller), another middle-class schoolmate who one day convinces Alex to visit Paranoid Park—an illegal skate park on the city’s tough East Side where the “hardcore freaks” and “throwaway kids” hang out. While not daring to skate there himself, Alex observes the scene with fascination, vowing to return.

A few days later he’s pulled from math class to be interviewed by a Portland police detective (Dan Liu, who really is one). It seems a railroad security guard was found dead in the depot yard not far from Paranoid Park. A skateboard was found discarded nearby. The man might have died accidentally, or he might have suffered “blunt force trauma” (like from a wielded board). Does Alex have any insights to offer about this? He does not. But via his voiceover diary excerpts and Van Sant’s complex orchestration of flashbacks, it turns out Alex knows a lot more than he’s letting on.

Gus Van Sant clearly enjoys observing young straight guys—*Mala Noche’s* protagonist made that clear early on—but Paranoid Park transcends barely-legal voyeuristic prurience by entering so thoroughly the world of its protagonist and his peers. Alex is an unformed person with a lot of current uncertainties in his life; Van Sant brilliantly captures the commingled tension, vagueness, self-preservation and self-awareness in his perspective.

But Paranoid Park is inseparable as a psychological and aesthetic experience. Christopher Doyle’s photography eschews the deep color saturation of his work for Wong Kar-wai, but it’s dazzling nonetheless—as motion-fluid as a skateboard, often in a rhapsody of slow-motion. (One lengthy shot in which a lineup of skaters reverse midair atop an embankment is pure visual enchantment.)

And Van Sant—an eccentric sometime singer-songwriter himself—surpasses all prior audio idiosyncrasy with an incredible selection that encompasses Beethoven, Elliott Smith (the uber-indie bard awkwardly delivered to the masses in Good Will Hunting), lush vintage Nino Rota soundtracks and some striking ambient tracks by Ethan Rose. Every musical choice here is striking, even anachronistic. Yet all feel utterly right, deepening the resonances of a film that provokes via one imaginative yet persuasive left-field juxtaposition after another.