An impressionistic teen drama

Posted: March 21, 2008

Intriguing and obliquely involving, Paranoid Park is Gus Van Sant's film approximation of concrete music.

That is, rather than a conventional three-act drama like the director's Finding Forrester or Good Will Hunting, it's composed of real-world sounds and textures that express a teenager's shifting states of mind and dawning conscience.

As in Elephant, Van Sant's lyrical evocation of high school life in the moments leading up to a Columbine-like massacre, the director uses impressionistic means to suggest the alienation of a skateboarder who may be involved in the death of a railroad security guard.

Clouds dapple, then darken the skies above Portland, Ore. Urethane wheels whir over asphalt. A garbage bag makes rustling music.

Such are the ways Van Sant characterizes Alex (Gabe Nevins), the dreamy-faced high schooler both drawn to and fearful of Paranoid Park, a parlous sk8er plaza under the bridge where boys test their skills and their manhood. (Van Sant cast Nevins and most of the nonprofessional actors in Paranoid Park by scrolling through MySpace.)

The fluid film cinematography of Christopher Doyle and Rain Kathy Li, intercut with grainy Super-8 shots of park regulars, tracks the skaters in their free-flying, free-styling and free-falling grace. In these privileged moments, the film is close to transcendence, defying time, space and gravity.

Like Blake Nelson's young-adult novel on which it's based, Paranoid Park is a first-person narrative that twists back on itself like one of the helical ramps at the skateboard park. Alex scribbles in his journal, sharing entries about his life and that night in the park. There is a beginning, a middle and end to his narrative, but not necessarily in that order.

His parents are splitting up, one reason the youth clutches his skateboard like a lifeline. Alex is also torn between the laidback friendship of his pal, Jared (Jake Miller), and the demands of his girlfriend, Jennifer (Taylor Momsen), when one Saturday night he goes to Paranoid Park. Alone.

There Jared meets an older man - there is a whiff of homoeroticism in their mutual fascination - who invites the youth to hop a freight train on the nearby railroad tracks. There, a horrible event takes place that leaves a security guard as physically split as Alex is psychically.

Was Alex involved in the accident? If so, to what extent? Finally, just as skateboarders defy the laws of physics, so Alex's circuitous and unreliable recitation of the events eludes, frustrates and defies narrative expectations.


Paranoid Park **1/2 (out of four stars)

Written, directed and edited by Gus Van Sant. With Gabe Nevins, Dan Liu, Taylor Momsen and Lauren McKinney. Distributed by IFC Films.

Running time: 1 hour, 18 mins.

Parent's guide: R (vehicular death, sexual candor)

Playing at: Ritz at the Bourse


Contact movie critic at 215-854-5402 or crickey@phillynews.com. Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at http://go.philly.com/flickgrrl/

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