Disaffected youth is the métier of Gus Van Sant. Beginning with his brilliant 1989 feature-length debut, Drugstore Cowboy, and continuing through Elephant, his 2003 imagining of a Columbine-styled tragedy, the Portland, Oregon-based filmmaker has poked and prodded teen dispirit. Paranoid Park, a Van Sant ode to callow young people, is a sort of Crime and Punishment for skaters. Artsy and emotionally remote on occasion, the film is not for all tastes -- but viewers with a more eclectic bent are likely to find it strangely spellbinding.
The title refers to a renegade skate park underneath a Portland bridge, but it could just as easily describe the state of mind of Alex (Gabe Nevins), the film's protagonist. A quiet and brooding teen, he is coping with issues familiar to many kids of his generation. His parents are getting a divorce, and he finds himself involved with a girlfriend (Taylor Momsen of television's Gossip Girl) he doesn't particularly like. But he has weightier troubles, too.
Alex harbors a terrible secret, one that revolves around the skate park. Van Sant builds tensions slowly, releasing dribbles and drips of information alluding to the horror that this sullen teen has bottled up. Alex explains to us in voiceover -- his narration is taken from a journal he keeps - that he is introduced to Paranoid Park by an older friend (Jake Miller) and immediately feels a kinship with the dead-end kids who hang there. "No matter how bad your family life was," Alex recounts blandly, "these guys had it much worse."
Then something happens one rainy night when Alex visits the park by himself. What transpires is as gruesome as it is tragic (you'll get no spoilers from me), and it leads inexorably to a police detective (Daniel Liu) visiting Alex's high school in hopes of eliciting info from the local "skateboard community."
Van Sant's work in recent years -- Elephant, Last Days and the like -- has become increasingly oblique, but the off-kilter, hypnotic tone of Paranoid Park feels somehow appropriate. It jumps around in time, its fractured nonlinear narrative mimicking the itinerant moves and twists of a skateboarder. There are languorous long takes, sometimes of nothing more complicated than Alex shuffling through a school hallway or field of tall grass.
The zonked-out lyricism is complemented in Christopher Doyle's gorgeous 35 mm cinematography, which spotlights Portland's muted grays and greens before gliding into Rain Kathy Li's slow-motion Super 8 images of showboating skaters. The soundtrack is equally eclectic, ranging from Elliott Smith melancholia to lush Nino Rota compositions lifted from Fellini films.
Van Sant doesn't play things safe with his cast, either. The filmmaker discovered most of his young actors by combing through the pages of MySpace. The result is that rare picture in which teenagers look like real teenager and keep emoting to a minimum. A largely nonprofessional cast can also mean wooden acting, something to which Paranoid Park is not immune. But even then, the subsequent gulf between dialogue and meaning seems to fit the film's fascinating sense of psychological isolation.
A stunning picture presented in anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1, the print transfer does justice to the movie's bleakly evocative visual scheme. Very slight grain in some dimly lit scenes is seemingly by design.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 is excellent -- clear, crisp and making subtle use of sound separation. Optional subtitles are in Spanish and English for the hearing-impaired.
IFC Films gets a significant demerit for including not a single extra -- not even a theatrical trailer, for God's sake.
Like a number of recent Gus Van Sant films, Paranoid Park is either mesmerizing existentialism or pretensions arthouse crap (maybe even both at once), depending on your threshold for such things. I fall squarely into the former camp, but the absence of any bonus material here is just plain stupefying.