Another immersion in the slacker/grunge milieu by Gus Van Sant, “Paranoid Park” is a deeply subjective portrait of a teenager’s state of denial about a death he has inadvertently caused. Through immaculate use of picture, sound and time, the director adds another panel to his series of pictures about disaffected, disconnected youth. Aesthetically in line with “Gerry,” “Elephant” and “Last Days,” this is a rarified, arid artwork that will register with Van Sant’s hardcore fans but leave anyone looking for more conventional satisfactions, notably teenagers themselves, impatient and unfulfilled. Commercial career of this French-financed feature will follow in the very modest footsteps of the helmer’s recent work.
Based on a novel by Blake Nelson, who grew up in Portland, Ore. — where Van Sant lives and works — “Paranoid Park” exists in a world of “throwaway kids” who are into skateboarding above all else, and for which the writer-director clearly has an enthusiasm he is unable to stimulate in the viewer. Title refers to a homemade boarding facility popular with the sport’s more renegade practitioners.
At the center of the tale, which has been severely fractured into a nonlinear form intended to convey a state of mind more than a series of events, is Alex (Gabe Nevins), a good-looking, shaggy-haired 16-year-old who is variously seen writing in a diary and watching, more than participating in, skateboarding, at which he feels he’s not that good.
Early on, it’s revealed a security guard has been run over in the rail yards and that foul play is suspected. A detective’s ginger questioning of Alex, then of the school’s entire skateboarding community, suggests that the unassertive, mild-mannered Alex was somehow involved. But the pic, along with Alex, bides its time, tending to quotidian matters, including his strictly reactive relationships with a couple of girls, and navigation between his divorcing parents, while postponing any action stemming from his guilt over what he did, however unintentional it was.
Viewed from the most mordant perspective, the pic could be considered a caustic critique of a kid’s total unwillingness to assume responsibility for a grave action, a refusal to face the moral, not to mention legal, dimensions of his accidental act. But this wouldn’t seem to be Van Sant’s intent, as the impressionistic use of beautifully lit, often mobile images and idiosyncratic use of musical overlays appear more generously designed to portray Alex’s paranoia and fear, his avoidance syndrome, his unwillingness to weigh and meditate on the ramifications of his actions.
The style eliminates so many potential dimensions of the story that the film is devoid of the elements audiences normally expect of films, beginning with drama, emotion, engagement and insight. On a moment-by-moment basis, one is most often objectively admiring the lovely work of cinematographer Christopher Doyle, whose 35mm shooting stands in marked contrast to the raw Super 8 skateboarding footage done by Rain Kathy Li.
Just as noticeable and/or distracting is the diverse musical collage that comprises the soundtrack. Dominating are the strains of Fellini stalwart Nino Rota, several of whose themes from “Juliet of the Spirits,” and one from “Amarcord,” stand in drastic emotional contrast to Alex’s benumbed state.
As Alex drives around at one point, snippets of rap, classical music and ambient sound are successively intercut, and there are many other similar juxtapositions. As with the visual style, these artistic elements stand at the fore of the film’s experience, acting independently on the viewer rather than discreetly serving the material.
Casting was done via MySpace, and young thesps are generally all right, although a bit stiff at moments. Girls portrayed by Lauren McKinney and Taylor Momsen come across with particular credibility, although a (notably ungraphic) loss of virginity scene must certainly be unparalleled in screen history for its lack of impact on one of the participants.