Alex (Nevins), a skateboarder, falls in with an older crowd at the local skate park and trespasses on a nearby railroad depot. While riding a freight train he is accosted by a security guard, and the resulting tussle leads to a shocking accident that haunts him.
You know you’re not in Hollywood anymore when the main character’s Uncle Tommy turns out to be Christopher Doyle, the bad-boy cinematographer whose prowess behind the lens is exceeded only by his performance in the bar. But then, Gus Van Sant hasn’t been in Hollywood for a while. Although he made his name with big-name indie fare, and even flirted with the studios, Van Sant has not simply gone back to his roots but even further, using non-professionals and an experimental style more extreme than the one he began with.
Van Sant’s conversion began with desert ordeal Gerry, followed by Columbine essay Elephant, and Kurt Cobain homage Last Days. But although Paranoid Park also features an unexpected (and untypically gory) death, this latest film stands apart from that trilogy.
To those who find all these films boring anyway, the difference will be negligible, but to those who think Van Sant has stumbled on a provocative new style when most of his peers are foundering, it seems he’s getting more radical in his old age.
With Doyle behind the lens, the film has a different look to Van Sant’s previous collaborations with Harris Savides; at once strangely elegant and dishevelled. Riding the concrete waves of the skate park, Doyle’s camera rolls and bodyswerves through its protagonist’s playground, the Paranoid Park of the title. The same goes for the film’s extraordinary score, a mash-up of alt-rock and jarring classical that creates a mood quite unlike Van Sant’s previous efforts.
However, this isn’t simply an avant-garde exercise. Van Sant has a particular flair for casting, and the teens assembled here are far removed from the kids of The OC, complete with spots, puppy fat and endearingly clumsy attempts at fashion sense. Best of all is newcomer Gabe Nevins as Alex, whose stuttering voiceover punctuates the film. At first, his performance seems odd and borderline amateur, but over time Van Sant plays his hand to reveal
the true depths of Alex’s despair. There’s no resolution as such, but that’s the importance of this small but engrossing film. In a world at war, where Iraq means almost nothing to the youth of America, Alex’s late-coming conscience lights up the surrounding gloom like a fireball.
Van Sants low-key, experimental high-school drama is an affecting rites-of-passage tale, told with bold style and quiet integrity.