By Dennis Hartley
Gus Van Sant’s name has become synonymous with what I call “northwest noir”, and, true to form, his latest film cozies right up alongside some of the director’s previous genre forays like Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho, Elephant and Last Days.
Dreamlike and elliptical in construct, Paranoid Park is a Crime and Punishment type portrait of a young man struggling with guilt and inner turmoil after inadvertently causing the death of a security guard. A Portland skateboarder named Alex (Gabe Nevins), lives with his brother and their mother (Grace Carter), who is separated from the boys’ father. We get a glimpse of the otherwise taciturn Alex’s inner life through snippets from a private journal, relayed to us in voice-over (a la Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver).
His parent’s pending divorce aside, Alex appears to be a typical suburban high school student. His girlfriend (Taylor Momsen) is a cheerleader; his best friend Jared (Jake Miller) is a skateboard enthusiast as well. The two friends hang out after school at an unsanctioned skateboard course, hidden beneath a freeway overpass and nicknamed “Paranoid Park” by users (the kind of place you don’t want to go to after dark).
Alex and Jared spend most of their time there marveling at the prowess of the hard core boarders. Alex harbors a fascination for the fringe lifestyles of the park’s more feral denizens; a breed he describes in his journal as “gutter punks, train hoppers, skate drunks…throwaway kids.”
Late one night, out of sheer boredom (and against his better instincts) Alex ventures into the park and hooks up with one of the “train hoppers”, a dubious character named “Scratch” (tempted by the Devil?). The resulting incident and its aftermath forms the crux of Alex’s churning moral dilemma and creeping paranoia.
The director’s script (adapted from Blake Nelson’s novel) features the minimalist dialogue we’ve come to expect in his films. This probably works to the young star’s advantage; especially since this was his first acting role (the director picked him out of an open casting call in Portland for extras).
Nevins, a slightly built, doe-eyed teenager who bears an uncanny resemblance to 70s bubble-gum idol Leif Garrett, fits the physical profile of the typical Van Sant protagonist. He and the rest of the largely non-professional cast give naturalistic performances. There is some nifty work from cinematographers Christopher Doyle and Kathy Li, especially in the chimerical skateboarding sequences.
As with many of Van Sant’s efforts (especially those of most recent vintage), your reaction to this film may hinge on your disposition when you watch it. Not for all tastes; but fans of movies like Tim Hunter’s River’s Edge and Francis Coppola’s The Outsiders will likely want to check out this similarly haunting mood piece about youthful angst.