Paranoid Park

2008, Movie, R, 84 mins

Review

PARANOID PARK
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With the moody LAST DAYS, Gus Van Sant completed the so-called "death trilogy," which included the teen mortality meditations GERRY and ELEPHANT. But it's not like he's lightening up: Van Sant's abstract, deceptively minimalistic adaptation of young-adult novelist Blake Nelson's 2006' s Paranoid Park is a downbeat, Dostoyevskian study of crime and guilt among the disaffected skate punks of Van Sant's beloved Portland, Oregon.

"Paranoid Park" is the local nickname for the East Side Skateboard Park, the concrete basin under a Portland bridge overpass where an intimidating crowd of "gutter punks, train hoppers, skate drunks" and other "throw-away kids" smoke, drink and, above all, skate. It's no place for amateurs, but late one summer day, high-school skater Alex (Gabe Nevins), whose parents have recently separated, and his best friend, Jared (Jake Miller), make their first visit to "Paranoid." Too intimidated by the hardcore skate freaks to do much more than watch, Alex and Jared plan to return that Saturday, even though Alex's demanding cheerleader girlfriend, Jennifer (Taylor Momsen), insists he spend the weekend with her. Jennifer senses that Alex would rather hang out with Jared and skate, and she's right: Alex worries she's going to pressure him into having sex, and things will get more serious than he can handle. When Jared blows him off for a last-minute road trip to Oregon State, Alex screws up his courage and goes to Paranoid alone and meets a scruffy, older train hopper named Scratch (Van Sant regular Scott Patrick Green), who invites Alex to hop a train with him. Months later, Alex is pulled out of class by Detective Richard Lu (Daniel Liu), who asks about his whereabouts that Saturday night. The police have recently reopened the case of a railroad-yard security guard (John "Mike" Burrouwes) who died that night, in what was thought to have been a gruesome accident. Now it appears that the guard was struck in the head with a heavy object, quite possibly a skateboard, and Detective Liu is interviewing all the skaters at Alex's school. Alex insists he knows nothing, but something did happen during the time he spent with Scratch at Paranoid Park, something that has been weighing heavily on Alex's conscience.

Like Nelson's novel, the film takes the form of a long letter, written "a little out of order" and read in the halting, unpracticed voice of an ordinary teenager, which Nevins and most of the other kids featured in the film actually are. Rather than go the usual casting route, Van Sant trolled MySpace in search of fresh young faces, and the strategy lends the film an authenticity and credibility it might otherwise lack. The letter structure, meanwhile, becomes challengingly complex as scrambled flashbacks within Alex's already disordered chronology further bury a truth Alex would rather forget. Like ELEPHANT, PARANOID PARK requires viewers to focus their attention and do a little detective work of their own. Van Sant further heightens the overall dreamlike, half-remembered quality with gorgeous slow-motion cinematography by Christopher Doyle and Rain Kathy Li, and a glitchy, blippy electronic soundtrack that also makes ample use of Nino Rota's classic scores for Fellini's JULIET OF THE SPIRITS and AMACORD. It's all confusing, woozy and slightly stoned, and feels very much like adolescence. leave a comment --Ken Fox

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