'Paranoid Park" is a film that has Gus Van Sant floating back into cohesive, indie-movie consciousness, and, already, people couldn't be more appreciative.
After dividing audiences with his Bela Tarr-influenced, inspired-by-a-true-story flicks "Gerry," "Elephant" and "Last Days" (or, as they are commonly referred to, his "death trilogy"), Van Sant simply adapts Blake Nelson's novel and turns it into a gloriously trippy, cinematic experience. And, believe it or not, it's still his most coherent movie in years.
With "Park," Van Sant creates a woozy world of adolescence, a teenage wasteland as a hazy fever dream. The main kid in this piece is Alex (first-timer Gabe Nevins), a Portland skateboarder who literally slides through life -- a Teflon teen, if you will. All this changes one night when he hangs out with the wrong crowd at a skate park and accidentally kills a security guard while hopping a freight train.
He mostly keeps mum about his little secret, dispensing everything that unfolded in a journal, out of sequence. ("Sorry, I didn't do so well in creative writing," he apologizes in voice-over.) Shaggy-haired and angel-faced, young Alex presents himself with such low-profile indifference, doing what he can to barely register on anyone's radar, it's easy to see how he could get away with it. His parents are in the throes of a divorce, making him feel as distant as he's ever been with them. All his cheerleader girlfriend (Taylor Momsen) wants is to lose her virginity to him. Even when a detective (Dan Liu) shows up at Alex's school and starts asking questions, he can't get a bead on the little punk.
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Van Sant does some smart things to keep "Park" coming with the delicious, dreamlike imagery. Instead of working with previous cinematographer Harris Savides, he hooks up with Christopher Doyle, the man who has beautifully lensed nearly all of Wong Kar-Wai's films, as well as many other gorgeous films to bounce out of Asia. So you can probably already guess just how elegantly fluid this movie becomes. Van Sant combines 35 mm footage with skateboarding sequences shot on Super 8, set to Leslie Shatz's wigged-out soundscapes (when they're not set to the odd Elliott Smith song). The result is a skateboard movie that flows with surrealistic serenity.
"Park" begins to wander in the third act, as the movie catches Alex trying to find the right way to break up with his nagging girlfriend instead of wrapping his head around taking a life. (This sudden narrative change makes "Park" look like the "No Country for Old Men" of coming-of-age flicks.) But then again, this could be Van Sant further illustrating how Alex's mind, like that of practically every teenager, can easily veer off track. In the movie, Alex gripes with one of his friends about "bigger problems" like the war in Iraq, only to shrug that topic off with complete disinterest when it's brought up near the end. As any parent knows, a teenager can care only for so long before moving on to the next pressing issue.
Ultimately, "Paranoid Park" may be most effective to those who are or have been adrift in their own teenage existence, dazed, confused and awake for each moment of it. Our protagonist is fully aware of his own reality but can't help detaching himself from it all. It's no surprise that Van Sant ends the film with what could be seen by fellow disillusioned youngsters as the perfect, utopian finale: Alex closes his eyes, shuts off to his hallucination of a life and daydreams about the one thing that truly matters -- skateboarding with his buddies.