Laura CliffordAlex (Gabe Nevins) is one of Portland’s tribe of skateboarders. He and his friend Jared (Jake Miller) gravitate to the place where the best ‘boarders congregate to ply their sport. But that decision will have dire consequences for Alex when a security guard is accidentally and gruesomely killed near “Paranoid Park.”
Fans of Gus Van Sant’s later films, such as “Gerry,” Elephant” and “Last Days,” are in for a treat with his latest tome, which he adapted from the Blake Nelson novel. The premise is simple – a young skateboarder, through unfortunate circumstance, is involved in the violent death of a railroad security guard and it is eating him up inside. But Van Sant approaches this straightforward story with a meditative mood that reflects the beauty and grace of Alex and company’s chosen sport and wraps it in an intriguing murder mystery.
Much of the spoken word in “Paranoid Park” is provided by newcomer Gabe Nevins as Alex, a young man who is coming of age in a world that doesn’t really have a place for him and the other ‘boarders. Van Sant moves back and forth in time, giving little bits of the overall story. You want to know what happened to Alex and the guard but the near hypnotic imagery that the helmer captures – the ‘boarders riding the obstacles of their concrete park, Alex coping with the guard’s death, a possessive girlfriend and estranged parents, his writing down his confession, the investigation of the death by a wary police detective (Daniel Liu) – with the help of lensers Christopher Doyle and Rain Kathy Li.
Van Sant does wonders working with his inexperience young cast. He is also an incredible visual artist who can use the camera to capture seemingly languorous interludes that are, in fact, riveting to the eye and mind. “Paranoid Park” will leave the multiplex filmgoers scratching their heads and asking “what the heck was all that about?” But, I don’t think that the writer/director is after that crowd anyway. It is aimed at the true film lover who can appreciate the experimental nature and mood that Van Sant is striving for. I give it an A-.
Alex (Gabe Nevins) is the older brother of a Portland home in the process of being split by divorce. He's happiest when on his skateboard and is beginning to tick off the girlfriend, Jennifer (Taylor Momsen, "Underdog," TV's "Gossip Girl"), who he is growing less and less enthusiastic about, by spending more and more time with Jared (Jake Miller). When Jared suggests the duo hit the local hardcore skateboarding scene, Alex demurs that he is not ready. But no one is ever ready for "Paranoid Park."
After "Last Days," I was expecting "Paranoid Park" to be a lesser, second tier effort from writer/director Gus Van Sant, but instead find that this fourth entry in his impressionistic reveries on death to be the purest artistic achievement in his experimental mode of filmmaking. From his direction of non-professional actors (Nevins is terrific as the troubled dreamer) to his fractured storytelling and glorious images startlingly matched to unusual soundscapes (a crescendo of birdsong during a shower, for example, creates interior suspense, Van Sant's homage to "The Birds," perhaps), "Paranoid Park" is multi-layered and mesmerizing.
Van Sant, adapting the Blake Nelson novel, begins his film with high speed photography depicting the bridge which separates the 'safe' areas Alex usually inhabits with the rougher, street park area, all set to cop thriller music which segues into carnival and the wind of fast-moving traffic. Grainy, dreamlike scenes of skateboarders give way to Alex heading towards a bench set amidst tall beach grass, then to the utter clarity of a composed shot of his bedroom, where wooden chair sits before wooden desk in a wood panelled room. A closeup reveals Alex titling a notebook with the words Paranoid Park.
Alex is called out of class and heads towards an office (Billy Swan's "I Can Help") where he meets Detective Richard Lu (Daniel Liu, "Untraceable"), who tells Alex that he has spoken to his friend Jared about a night at Paranoid Park. Alex denies having been there, plans thwarted, and provides minute detail about the meal he got at a Subway. We learn that a security guard was killed on railroad tracks near the park and that a skateboard was probably involved. Alex roams back down the hallway to Elliott Smith's "White Lady Loves You More." A scene follows where Alex drops Jared off and orders two cheeseburgers and a chocolate shake from a drive-through window and we know he was lying to Detective Lu, that this is a flashback to the night in question.
More flashbacks and flashforwards round out the horrific story of what happened that night, but they also serve to bring us under Alex's skin and into his thoughts, his alienation. Alex's girlfriend is pushing for sex, which he goes along with, but his behavior afterwards is passive/aggressive (the scene itself is brilliantly played out, Jennifer pulling Alex along an upstairs hallway where a series of pictures reveal her history from infancy to high school as her family shrieks outside, frolicking in the family pool). Alex breaks up with Jennifer, revealed to be an all-American cheerleader matching that blackly humorous moniker, in silence in a scene framed reminiscent of "Manhattan" (in fact, many of Van Sant's music choices at this part of the film sound like they came from a Woody Allen movie - Van Sant has used numerous Nino Rota selections from Fellini's "Juliet of the Spirits").
As his distress over his involvement in the death escalates, Alex's few communications tend to be lies - until, that is, school friend Macy (Lauren McKinney) detects a problem. Macy, as far as possible a type from Jennifer's preppie golden girl, obviously 'likes' Alex and has far more substance than his previous female friend and it is she who sets what we come to understand as the film's underlying storytelling structure in motion - Alex's purging of his guilt to paper.
Van Sant's approach to the material reflects the inner, non-linear workings of the mind and during the course of "Paranoid Park" we really get to know what it feels like to be Alex. Cinematography by Christopher Doyle ("In the Mood for Love," "The Quiet American") and Rain Kathy Li ("Porte de Choisy" segment of "Paris, je t'aime") alternates from standard medium, tracking and two-shots and Alex's direct point of view (never more pointedly than when Jared picks him up and grills him on his new skateboard). Art Direction by John Pearson-Denning ("Elephant's" prop master) serves up the middle class backgrounds of Van Sant's protagonists and differentiates their world from that of Paranoid Park. Sound design is integral to the mix, sometimes most effective when dialogue is silenced.
Gus Van Sant's next film, "Milk," promises to be a much more straightforward film, but this, along with "Jerry," "Elephant" and "Last Days" comprise the most distinct of Van Sant's voices. Van Sant has made films about troubled teenagers since his career began and "Paranoid Park" is a mini-masterpiece.
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