Theres something strange in the neighborhood
Stoking the anxieties of adolescence
Gus Van Sants latest film delves into accidental murder and madness
By Steven Snyder
Throughout his career, director Gus Van Sant has made a name for himself by stoking the anxieties of adolescence. It all started in 1985 with Mala Noche, a recently revived road romance about a gay teenager incapable of connecting with the Mexican immigrant he loves. Van Sants three most recent creations have integrated this sense of isolation and loneliness into the very texture of the film: Gerry (2002) is primarily an experimental film about two friends trekking across the desert in silence; Elephant (2003) looks down on its characters while adopting an unusual overhead point of view; and Last Days (2005) tackles the troubled life and death of Kurt Cobain.
With Paranoid Park, Van Sant depicts a young skateboarder traumatized by his accidental murder of a security guard, a story adapted from the novel by fellow Portland artist Blake Nelson. In approaching the materialalready sliced up chronologically in Nelsons bookVan Sant produces his most conventional vision in quite some time.
Jumping between the days before and the days after the death, we come to know Alex (Gabe Nevins) as a teenager almost entirely disconnected from the world around him. Pushed away by friends, and misunderstood by family, his reprieve quickly becomes a makeshift skateboard course known by locals as Paranoid Park. Here Van Sant creates some of the most magical and rapturous sequences of his career, capturing an array of local teens as they launch themselves into the air, twisting and contorting in a moment of temporary ecstasy. This is also where Alex starts to lower his guard for the first time, where he finally feels as if he fits in.
That sense of comfort, however, is obliterated with Alexs ill-fated trip to the local train yard, when a few boyish pranks turns into something bloody and tragic. As the yards security guard falls on the train tracks a locomotive bearing down on him Alex commits a crime without even realizing it. As a wave of sadness and remorse washes over the young man, Paranoid Park becomes a simulacrum to a case study in the five stages of grief.
While the majority of Park feels far more casual than many of Van Sants films, particularly the 1998 shot-by-shot remake of Alfred Hitchcocks Psycho, there is nevertheless one virtuoso sequence in the movie that reveals a master filmmaker at the top of his game. Stepping into the shower moments after the murder, Alexperfectly played by Nevinsstands motionless under the stream of water for what seems like five minutes. As the speed of the film slows, and the stream of water slowly morphs into droplets, the soundtrack (mixed by the masterful Felix Andrew) explodes into a mix of atonal music and ambient jungle noises, representative of the primal and powerful urges being unleashed in Alexs mind.
When the movie made its local premiere last fall at the New York Film Festival, the reaction of the critical community was mixed. For devout fans of Van Sants more recent experimental achievements, the movie was perceived as conventional and timid. But for those who have never much cared for Van Sants cerebral asides, Paranoid Park was still too edgy and disconnected, and this ambiguous shower scene was the point at which some stormed out.
As I watched the movie, however, I couldnt help but feel that Van Sant molded this story in the only reasonable way.
Given the angst of its antiheroa young character who doesnt yet even understand himselfthe movie had to remain similarly removed and distant, denying the audience any clear insight. Really, if he had gone too experimental (à la Elephant), Van Sant would have lost sight of Alex as a complete character, and if he had gone too conventional the thing might not be worth watching at all.
It was somewhere between Van Sants extremes where this movie had to take root. This is a realistic story about a boy out of his league, and as Alex slowly descends into a place of claustrophobia and hysteria, so does the movie grind to a halt, suffering from much the same paralysis.
All things considered, Paranoid Park isnt just one of Van Sants flashiest creations; its also one of his most emotionally taxing.