Previous version incorrectly described two characters. The protagonist is Alex, portrayed by actor Gabe Nevins; the friend of the protagonist is Jared, played by Jake Miller.
'Paranoid Park:' Minor Van Sant Work Packs a Muted Punch
Friday, March 21, 2008
Gus Van Sant tries his hand at creating a cinematic murder ballad with "Paranoid Park," yet another fascinating, if not entirely successful, digression in a career that has moved with surprising ease between such indie bellwethers as "Drugstore Cowboy" and "My Own Private Idaho" and big-canvas productions such as "To Die For" and "Good Will Hunting."
On its face, the ruminative, time-scrambling style and spontaneous visuals of "Paranoid Park" might lead viewers to call it experimental. But take away such perennial Van Sant mannerisms as slow-motion shots and quirky soundtrack and it's quite conventional -- especially compared with such audacious recent ventures as "Elephant," "Gerry" and "Last Days."
Based on the novel by Blake Nelson, "Paranoid Park" stars newcomer Jake Miller as Jared, a high school student and skateboarder who with his best friend Alex (Gabe Nevins) decides to brave one of the dodgier skate hangouts in their home town of Portland, Ore. Nestled under an overpass, the concrete redoubt for "train hoppers, guitar punks and throwaway kids" pulses with the allure of danger and even, at its more shadowy edges, sudden death.
Partly narrated by Jared himself in a letter to an unknown recipient, "Paranoid Park" tells a disjointed story of what happened to him on one particularly fateful night. As he tries to get the details of those events straight, the film splices in scenes from Jared's relationship with his cheerleader girlfriend and his attenuated family life, gradually revealing clues not only to the tale's central mystery, but Jared's own identity as someone who has punched through to a radically different reality from the one he has known.
Working with cinematographer Christopher Doyle, best known for his work with such Hong Kong directors as Wong Kar-Wai, Van Sant films "Paranoid Park" with dreamy, mesmerizing lassitude (those swooping skateboards), as well as the subversive brio of something caught on the fly; at one point, Doyle shoots Portland street scenes on Super-8 film, then bars the subjects' eyes out, tabloid style. At other moments, Van Sant derives his inspiration from silent films. One memorable scene features the face of the young actress Taylor Momsen as she reacts to a piece of unwelcome news, her wide-eyed expression resembling a cross between Lillian Gish and a Bratz doll.
Van Sant is such an assured filmmaker that "Paranoid Park" is almost inescapably absorbing; he's found a particularly engaging leading man in Miller, whose expressive, even painterly face goes from blank to angelic in the blink of a long-lashed eye. Ultimately, though, this might best be counted as minor Van Sant, exhibiting his characteristic flourishes and love for obscure music (the haunting final song is by a little-known Alabama country singer named Cast King), but little of the lasting emotional wallop that marks his best work.
Still, even something as modest as "Paranoid Park" manages to reflect Van Sant's greatest strengths as an artist: his seemingly limitless fluency with his chosen medium, and his willingness to tell even the oldest stories in bold new ways.
Paranoid Park (85 minutes, at Landmark's E Street) is rated R for some disturbing images, profanity and sexual content.