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Movie Review: Paranoid Park

Simbarashe Simbarashe
March 17th, 2008 3:54pm EDT
Paranoid ParkAs a former Portland resident, I'd gone into this film thinking that I was going to see the infamous downtown park crawling with bums and meth-addicts, and was a bit surprised to see instead Paranoid Park brought to us by way of Burnside (those of you familiar with the Tony Hawk video games will understand). With that out of the way, let me just say that director Gus Van Sant is owed a monumental debt of thanks by the state of Oregon. By himself, he quite literally is their movie industry.

If there's a person in the world who understands how to capture the tense awkward lives of young people better than Van Sant, he or she surely isn't making movies. Paranoid Park carries a sort of lineage from his other masterpiece, 2003's Elephant, a film loosely based on the Columbine massacre. Here our protagonist is Alex (Gabe Nevins), a teenager who could very well attend the school where Elephant takes place. Alex is a typical kid with typical problems: his parents are getting divorced, he has a younger brother who looks up to him though he's not sure why, he has a girlfriend who 'loves' him though he's not sure why, and he likes to skateboard even though he's not that good at it. Alex and his best friend decide to go to Paranoid Park, the place where the best skateboarders in town congregate and showcase their skills. But Alex has reason to bare reservations: the patrons of the park are mostly made up of young renegades and skating revolutionaries who in some symbolic way don't mind if they're ultimately ditched by the rest of society. When Alex meets an older outcast at the park by the name of Scratch (Scott Patrick Green, by now a Van Sant veteran) Alex's reservations seem validated.

This is pretty much a straightforward setup for the film, but the execution is anything but. Alex spends the entire film writing a letter. Since he assorts his thoughts as he goes, the chronology is out of order, but through the sheer will of his melancholy, it never gets messy or confusing. There's been a murder out on the train tracks near the park and a police detective by the name of Richard Lu (Daniel Liu) has come by Alex's school to round up all of the skaters to question them on their potential knowledge of said murder. While we watch Alex sitting through much of 85 minutes reacting to those around him like a child of autism, Alex himself watches the world around him through expressively beautiful sound and mind. Whenever he sees his girlfriend Jennifer (Taylor Momsen of Gossip Girl), all he hears are classical woodwinds and harps drifting through. When out with his skating buddies, his mind becomes the ambient world of slow-fi, not unlike Radiohead's Kid A. The sequences are memorizing.

I had slammed another film, Never Back Down, over its flat dialogue and spotty acting. In this film, a similar result happens, but with the complete opposite effect. Alex narrates with the clumsiness of a teenage boy reading his own personal journal aloud-if you can imagine that-and he stutters through his contact with others the same way. This is a kid, a good kid, who gets stuck in an extremely unfortunate circumstance and we believe every drop of it. It's also interesting how Van Sant chooses not to show his parents' or teachers' faces, always keeping the focus on Alex's poor poker face. But we get to see Detective Lu-a lot-and the director makes sure that we understand the seeds of doubt in his face. The only person who seems determined to crack his thin façade of b.s. is Macy, a girl who might or might not be his other best friend.

If Juno succeeds in presenting a high school teenage girl who exists being proud of her anti-trends and cognition of being smarter than everybody else, Paranoid Park succeeds in presenting an equally realistic high school teenage boy who exists just because he's supposed to. There's a point in the film where Alex's friends grill him on his attitude towards sex (I won't spoil it) and by then, we're completely sold on who he is, inside and out. For some of you, this is the perfect addition to your special indie-collection.

My Grade: A-

Rated R, Running time 85 minutes
Starring: Gabe Nevins, Daniel Liu, Taylor Momsen
Written by Gus Van Sant, based on the novel by Blake Nelson
Directed by Gus Van Sant
Distributed by MK2 Productions

Review by Simbarashe
Starpulse contributing writer