Are you ready for Paranoid Park? It’s a question that haunts Portland teenager Alex (Gabe Nevins) as he obsessively circles back over a night destined to prove a defining moment in his life, and tries to make sense of how he got there…
The latest episode in Gus Van Sant’s Excellent Adventure – as we like to think of his Proudly Pretentious period – Paranoid Park feels like the movie he’s been groping towards since he turned his back on the mainstream with Gerry six years ago.
This is the one where form and content truly mesh, perhaps because inarticulate sk8 punk Alex shares some affinities with the director’s own indeterminate, sometimes frustratingly hazy sensibility.
Like Van Sant’s previous works Elephant and Last Days, Paranoid Park hinges on an act of violence, but approaches it sideways, through chronologically scrambled, layered flashbacks cued by the diary Alex is writing – mostly, it seems, for his own peace of mind. He can’t bring himself to tell anyone what happened, but he’s not above lying to himself either.
In the present tense, a police detective (Dan Liu) interviews Alex and his buddies about the death of a security guard in a railway yard near the makeshift skateboarding zone the kids call Paranoid Park. (The cop reckons one of the boarders may have seen something; he doesn’t have much physical evidence to go on.) Meanwhile, his pretty but vacuous cheerleader girlfriend (Taylor Momsen) doesn’t understand why Alex isn’t hot to get it on, and his parents announce they’re divorcing – but not to worry, everything will be the same as it was. In outline this is a straightforward story (it’s based on a teen-lit novel by Blake Nelson), but not if you’re in the middle of it. Van Sant’s inspiration is to shoot the movie playing over and over in Alex’s head: a jumbled loop of vivid images, blurry motivations, and an underlying numb – or at least, dumb – pain.
Photographed in 35mm and Super 8 by newcomer Rain Kathy Li and Wong Kar-Wai’s regular cinematographer Christopher Doyle (In The Mood For Love, Hero) Paranoid Park frequently breaks with the long tracking shots the director has favoured recently for a more intimate, mesmerising impressionism – most effectively, in the gorgeous, lyrical slow-mo of the skating scenes. The soundtrack designed by the experienced veteran Leslie Schatz is even more of a kick, a weird but affecting mix of electronica, Elliott Smith, Nino Rota and Beethoven (Schatz puts birdcalls over a shower scene – and it works).
You only have to picture how differently Larry Clark would have approached the subject to appreciate Van Sant’s instinctive empathy for an alienated young man on the edge. Incidentally – or maybe not – it’s probably the director’s most gay film since My Own Private Idaho…