Teen tailslides into trouble in Van Sant’s slackadaisical drama
Directed by Gus Van Sant
Cast: Gabe Nevins, Daniel Liu, Taylor Momsen
Gus Van Sant is a genius of some sort. Which means his films are either brilliant (My Own Private Idaho, To Die For) or frustrating (Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, Gerry). Or both at the same time, it could be argued. Continuing his lo-fi, aggressively indie ruminations on disaffected youth (stretching from 1989’s Drugstore Cowboy to 2003’s Elephant), Van Sant offers up his latest, Paranoid Park.
Paranoid Park dabbles in the same sort of abstract expressionism as Gerry and Elephant, but finds a far tighter, more coherent narrative than either of those two films managed. Mixing pedestrian realism with arty self-consciousness, Van Sant has created a snapshot of modern American youth that is among his most vivid.
Alex (nonprofessional actor Gabe Nevins) is a typical teenager from Portland. He spends most of his time skateboarding with pals, ignoring his about-to-divorce parents and trying to figure out what to do with his cute but narcissistic cheerleader girlfriend (Taylor Momsen from “Gossip Girl,” one of the few professional actors on display here). In an awkward and somewhat disjointed way, Alex is struggling to get his thoughts down on paper. We’re not sure why, but when a police detective shows up at school and interviews him about the death of a security guard at the local railyards, we get a hint of what Alex might be trying to get off his chest.
Seems this security guard fell onto the railroad tracks and was run over by a train. At first, police assumed it was an accident, but subsequent clues led them to believe the guard was struck in the head. With a skateboard. Did Alex have something to do with this gruesome incident?
Van Sant takes his time telling this slim story (based on a book by Blake Nelson, who also provided the inspiration for 1998’s Girl). There’s little dialogue, scant character development. Van Sant spends as much time simply watching these kids drift around the city on skateboards as he does exploring their inner turmoil. And yet, we come to believe that Alex is not just another anesthetized teen. Alex’s problem is that he’s not quite numb enough. As he lopes slowly forward, telling his tale in a confessional, mumble-mouthed voice-over, there’s reason to believe that maybe there’s some hope for the lad. The film doesn’t offer any sort of reassuring “the kid’s are all right” sentiment. In fact, it will only cause older folks to lament about the state of America’s screwed-up youth. Unlike 1986’s similar River’s Edge, however, there’s some ephemeral hint of absolution waiting on the horizon.
You get the impression that the incident hiding at the center of this story will haunt Alex for the rest of his life. But you also get the impression that he will have a life--shaped, but not ruled, by his stupid, awkward, confusing, painful teenage years. As in most of his films, Van Sant avoids passing judgment on his characters. But here, the reticence makes sense. Despite his confusion and his poor handling of several situations, it’s not hard to sympathize with Alex. He tries, more than once, to reach out to the people around him. But an estranged father, a self-absorbed best friend and a controlling girlfriend don’t make for very good confidants. Later, Alex drifts toward matter-of-fact skater chick Macy (Lauren McKinney). She’s the one person who actually senses something’s wrong with Alex, and his eventual proximity to her provides some semblance of closure to this messy tale.
Mostly, though, Van Sant is into capturing the settings, the styles, the moods of teenage life. Teaming up with famed cinematographer Christopher Doyle (Chungking Express, Hero, The Quiet American) and shooting many sequences in raw Super 8 film stock, Van Sant reflects the aimless ebb and flow of skaterat society. Van Sant’s schizophrenic soundtrack also adds to the flavor, skipping between hip-hop, Elliot Smith tunes, mournful country ballads and snippets of Nino Rota’s soundtrack to Juliet of the Spirits (interesting reference there, Gus).
A grim but fleetingly hopeful mood piece, Paranoid Park showcases Van Sant at his best. It’s an amalgamation of his early, story-driven character pieces and his recent, more abstract visions of youth on the edge. The end result of this cinematic alchemy hints at a solid new direction for this brilliant, frustrating genius of a filmmaker.