Watching one of Gus Van Sant's latter-day indies is not unlike sitting down to listen to a record album, with aesthetics coming to the fore of the artistic experience. Van Sant's Paranoid Park—based on the young-adult novel by Blake Nelson—finds the director in the dreamy tone-poetic mode of Gerry and the high-school setting of Elephant. The atypically short synopsis in the press notes effectively sums up the story, though not Van Sant's rich plotting of it: "Alex, a teenage skateboarder, accidentally kills a security guard in the vicinity of Paranoid Park, Portland's tough skate park. He decides to say nothing."
In telling the story of the disaffected and uninflected Alex (Gabe Nevins, who resembles an overgrown cherub on Valium), Van Sant adopts a mostly numb aspect. A study in isolation and, yes, paranoia, Alex's self-sifted account of the manslaughter and its aftermath constitutes relived memories coming in repetitive waves. The mesmerizingly beautiful images—often in slo-mo—glide to evoke Alex's primary pursuit of skating. Penetrating extreme close-ups are the rule, not the exception, and Van Sant focuses the eye by shooting in old-school "Academy ratio" instead of widescreen (the photography is by the great Christopher Doyle—who cheekily appears as Uncle Tommy—and Rain Kathy Li).
Super-8 skate-film-style reveries alternate with 35mm wanderings through Alex's stifling habitats, none quite a home: his school, where a lecture on "buoyant force" is interrupted as Alex is called to meet a disingenuous police detective; his house, where his mother fends off the calls of her soon-to-be ex-husband; his Uncle Tommy's cabin, where Alex's father plans his next move; a local coffee shop, where Alex fretfully scans the Metro section; and Paranoid Park itself.
Alex's best friend Jared (Jake Miller) permanently falls out of the loop just before the crime, and Alex isn't even attracted to his default girlfriend Jennifer (Taylor Momsen), a shrill virgin eager to become sexually active. The boy's mother is seen (and only briefly) from a distance, or from behind; his father--equally out of the picture--comes briefly into focus with a sincere offer to be there for his son, but Alex can't bring himself to seize the opportunity. On the night of the killing, the automated 411 operator chirps, "Happy citizenship day!" at Alex, just before he dissolves into tearful despair.
As such, Alex faces his own coming-of-age alone, cutting himself off from aid at precisely the time he needs it the most. He tells Jared, "Dude, I don't think I'm ready for Paranoid Park." "Yeah, but nobody's ever ready for Paranoid Park," Jared replies. The implication is clear: no one's ever ready for the maelstrom adults mean when they say, "Life isn't fair," but one must enter it the same. At last, a girl named Macy (Lauren McKinney) emerges as a potential soul mate for Alex; at her urging, he puts down on paper his account of what's eating him (and here is the source of the film's narration).
Alex's post-crime shower epitomizes Van Sant's subjective, semi-experimental audio-visual technique: as we take in the raining water and birds on the tiles, we notice the sound of chirping birds, then an overwhelming rainforest soundscape mixes up. We're in Alex's mind, and it's a jungle in there. Throughout, Van Sant employs an eclectic soundtrack, from Ethan Rose's soundscapes to whimsical Nino Rota themes (primarily Juliet of the Spirits) to Elliott Smith, Billy Swan, and Bernard Parmegiani. The writer-director-editor also surgically employs verbal collage at the peak of Alex's anxiety, the moments after the killing.
The naturalistic, occasionally wooden cast is non-professional and was infamously recruited through MySpace (the one exception, Momsen, is the worst actor in the film). The gambit works, since Van Sant's dialogue is minimalist and purposefully inarticulate, the better to get to the existential discomfiture underlying teen behavior. "I just feel like there's something outside of normal life," Alex finally coughs up to Macy. "Outside of teachers, breakups, girlfriends. Like, right out there, Like, outside—there's, like, different levels of stuff. And there's something that happened to me." Van Sant implies that maturity should mean the opposite of ironic detachment. Alex's peers laugh or smile at gruesome crime scene photos; one skater asserts, "Grown-ups do stuff for money. There is no other reasons." Letting a kid be a kid, Van Sant gives only one dialogue scene to Alex's younger brother: an illustratively inane recitation from Napoleon Dynamite.
Alex should by no means carry the weight of representing all teens, but he fits a credible type: the bored public-school surburbanite beginning to realize that he can't skate away his neuroses forever, or as authority figures might put it, "skate through life." The spectre of the Iraq war comes up more than once, only to be promptly dismissed, but it represents a potential (mortal) endgame for the youth who "doesn't apply" himself to his studies or a career. In one scene, we eye a prominent classroom sign reading "ASPIRE," but it's at an empty desk in an empty classroom commandeered by a police lieutenant looking to nail Alex for murder. In other words, good luck, kid.