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Paranoid Park

Paranoid Park
2007 / Color / 1:37 flat full frame / 84 min. / Street Date October 7, 2008 / 19.95
Starring Gabe Nevins, Daniel Liu, Taylor Momsen, Jake Miller, Lauren McKinney, Winfield Jackson, Joe Schweitzer, Grace Carter, Scott Patrick Green, John Michael Burrowes
Cinematography Christopher Doyle, Rain Kathy Li
Film Editor Gus Van Sant
Written by Gus Van Sant from a novel by Blake Nelson
Produced by David Cress, Charles Gillibert, Nathanaël Karmitz, Neil Kopp
Directed by Gus Van Sant

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Paranoid Park begins as a murder mystery and settles into a character study about a sensitive young skateboarder. Writer-director Gus Van Sant is known for 1997's Good Will Hunting, but his more personal movies tend to be about marginalized Americans, like the petty criminals in Drugstore Cowboy or the intinerant hustlers of My Own Private Idaho. Filmed in and around Van Sant's Portland, Oregon, Paranoid Park takes as its focus a modern teenager beset by a moral dilemma. Introverted young Alex (Gabe Nevins) lives a sort of subsurface urban existence, not fully relating to his family or his friends. Although not a very good skateboarder, Alex loves the sport and is attracted to an unofficial hangout for serious skaters called Paranoid Park. Inexperienced but nobody's fool; Alex realizes that he's too green to deal with some of the tough characters who hang out there.

Paranoid Park teases us with elements of a standard mystery. Alex shuts out the events of a traumatic night at Paranoid Park, the details of which return only when he's summoned with other "skater" teens to be interviewed by a police detective, Richard Lu (Daniel Liu). Alex suddenly has to deal with a horrible secret outside the scope of his experience. The film doesn't pay off as a police story, but instead sketches an interesting young teen worthy of our concern.

A great deal of Van Sant's film simply follows Alex around, recording his spiritual isolation. As if living in an emotional bubble, Alex relates to the world as if it were an abstraction. He seems to hide beneath his mop of uncut hair. He doesn't know or care anything about the Iraq war and barely seems cognizant of his surroundings. Alex is deeply affected by the fact that his parents are divorcing, and doesn't want to cause problems. He escapes from his home life on unapproved adventures with his friends, like visiting the skateboard hangout.

Alex's peers aren't into drugs but they are experimenting with sex; the boys talk constantly about getting laid. For the girls, having sex is a mark of status, something to brag about. The baby-faced Alex is prime boyfriend material for Jennifer (Taylor Momsen of Gossip Girl), a humorless blonde tease. Jennifer corrals the mostly passive boy into a rushed encounter in her own bedroom. When Alex shows little interest in a steady relationship, Jennifer becomes hostile. Her histrionics provide an opportunity door for Macy (Lauren McKinney), a less popular but more diplomatic competitor for Alex's attention.

If Alex can't concentrate, it's because his head is in a serious spin. Detective Lu's grisly photos bring back clear memories of the previous Saturday night at Paranoid Park. Alex drank beer with Scratch (Scott Patrick Green) an early-twenties skate bum with unclear intentions. Scratch teaches Alex how to hop a freight train, which goes well until they're spotted -- and attacked -- by a rail yard security man (John Michael Burrowes). The awful result finds Alex convinced that he's a suspect for murder.

The camera watches Alex walk to and from class and down to a beach to write, using Varispeed camera manipulation and purposeful flash frames. The slow motion underscores Alex's isolation, while music fills the soundtrack: pop hits, classical instrumentals, Nino Rota themes from Juliet of the Spirits. The film texture changes to DVCam and Super-8 during several extended scenes of skateboarding action at the cement park. These style choices are used with restraint and for the most part do not become a distraction.

Director Van Sant gets mixed results from his non-pro actors. Gabe Nevins has perfected the unfocused teenaged stare, which works well enough for his character. Preoccupied by his problems, Alex's dulled responses send mixed signals to Jennifer and Macy. Lauren McKinney is good as the talkative Macy. She knows when to back off, unlike the predatory Jennifer, who demands that Alex get in step with her program and gives him grief when he doesn't. Taylor Momsen's delivery sometimes seems amateurish, but she sounds quite a bit like inexperienced youngsters that affect attitudes beyond their range. Van Sant drops the soundtrack during one of Jennifer's tantrum scenes, possibly because her acting wasn't convincing.

Paranoid Park drifts to a conclusion without resolving its mystery; its aim is clearly to express the disaffected state of a certain strata of today's kids. Whether or not it is successful will be an individual judgment.

Genius Entertainment, Weinstein and IFC Films' DVD of Paranoid Park is a solid presentation of this flat (1:37) picture, with good color and good 5.1 audio. The filming is so basic that we're surprised to see the long credits roll at the conclusion; many of the names are associated with the key 'trauma' scene in the railway yard, which uses CGI to produce a couple of disturbing images. That scene and some rough language account for the film's "R" rating. Sadly, there are no extras. We know that Paranoid Park was sourced from a novel by Blake Nelson, another Portland native and a writer familiar with the slacker lifestyle. The film also won a special prize at Cannes. More information about those aspects and Van Sant's methods with his young cast would have made for an interesting commentary.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Paranoid Park rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 13, 2008

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2008 Glenn Erickson

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