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Paranoid Park

A Life of Quiet Desperation Revealed

Gus Van Sant has made his mark as a mainstream filmmaker with the crossover success of Good Will Hunting and, rather astonishingly, the shallow melodrama Finding Forrester, but lately he has returned to his independent roots with a series of moody, minimalist experiments. In 2003’s Elephant, he offered a chilling recreation of a Columbine-style massacre, offering little explanation for his gunmen’s motives save for some sociopathic sense of restless misanthropy. Two years later, he contemplated the suicide of Kurt Cobain in Last Days, the tale of a fictional singer who reduces his life to a drug-induced fog before ending it.

Paranoid Park deviates from the pattern ever so slightly. Based on the novel by Blake Nelson, it traces the emotional fallout of a teenager implicated in the grisly death of a security guard. Like many of Nelson’s characters, Alex (Gabe Nevins) is a portrait of disaffection, isolated from his friends and embittered parents by a secret he cannot bring himself to divulge. It is a role that requires little in the way of expression – Alex’s turmoil is fiercely internalized – but Nevins, making his debut after being recruited to the film from the pages of MySpace, conveys plenty with his gloom-deadened eyes and quietly anguished monotone.

Alex is neither sinister nor particularly artful in his attempts to cover up an inadvertent murder, and like Raskolnikov, he is powerless to clear his guilty conscience until Macy (Lauren McKinney) suggests he write about it, perhaps in a letter to a friend. Van Sant uses the letter as a stylistic device; Paranoid Park isn’t so much a straight narrative as a series of unsettling flashbacks delivered in a stream of confused consciousness. (“I didn’t do so well in creative writing,” Alex admits.) It unfolds at its own deliberate pace, on a note of escalating dread.

The film is shot like a hazy but otherwise lucid dream, as Van Sant lingers on images both real and imagined. Alex, whose fate becomes perilously intertwined with a late-night visit to Paranoid Park – an actual skate park in Portland, Ore., the city where many of Nelson’s stories take place – has become a prisoner of his own mind, itself a tormented mess of dark memories and high-flying skateboard fantasies that cinematographers Christopher Doyle and Rain Kathy Li present in an almost ethereal light.

Sometimes the experiments work, sometimes they don’t. Van Sant’s penchant for lingering can be a distraction; in a film where dialogue comes at a premium, he allows his camera to do the talking, and when it rests too long on one subject, the commentary feels like overstatement. Elsewhere, Paranoid Park is eloquent in its terseness. Most poignant, perhaps, is the scene in which Alex’s father apologizes for not being around much, explaining that he feels miserable, but that the situation is beyond his control. Alex’s muttered response is reflexive, but telling: “I know how you feel.”

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars