Normally, you wouldn’t want to pay attention to a story told by a guy who admits, right off the bat, that he’s “not that good at creative writing.” But Gus Van Sant’s haunting and immediate Paranoid Park understands adolescence as a kind of first draft, a series of raw experiences unmediated by wisdom, and as a result it allows its verbally-challenged protagonist to narrate in his own imperfect voice, rather than imposing a Wonder Years-style voice-over conscience. The films in Van Sant’s recent long-take trilogy (Gerry, Elephant, Last Days) took sensationalistic news stories from real life and then stripped them of all causality, as a way of portraying human activity as essentially random and undetermined. But Paranoid Park is a deeper and even more bracing step into the unknown for the veteran filmmaker, a fully subjective probe into the consciousness of a young man and a generous display of artistic empathy.
Based on a young adult novel by Blake Nelson, Paranoid Park follows a shy high-school-aged Portland skateboarder named Alex (Gabe Nevins) after an impulsive decision leads to the accidental murder of a security guard on a train track not far from the titular skate-punk mecca. Alex is not suspected in the crime, so he keeps his involvement a secret. Consequently, his world begins to revolve in terrifying slow orbit: His cheerleader girlfriend (Taylor Momsen) openly displays her previously unapparent vapidity, his parents’ impending divorce rapidly materializes, and Alex quietly reconsiders his emotional priorities. “I think…there’s different levels of stuff,” he tentatively concludes, and it seems impossible not to intuit exactly what he means.
Van Sant cast the film using MySpace in order to foster a sense of realism, but Paranoid Park is just as stylized as Elephant. Only the ends are different. Instead of depending on his long-take standby Harris Savides, Van Sant turned to Christopher Doyle, the other Greatest Cinematographer in the World, to capture the Super-8 swirl of skate-kid hero worship and the haze of adolescent panic. (Leslie Shatz’s sound design sporadically offers musique concréte as a way of conveying Alex’s fractured mental state.) Where Elephant‘s camera treated its beautifully doomed youths like lab rats, the style of Paranoid Park is perfectly in sync with its lead character; it reflects Alex’s internal coping mechanisms. When Alex’s girlfriend responds to his fumbling we-need-to-break-up plea, we see her vitriol, but we hear Nino Rota’s theme from Juliet of the Spirits as a way of rendering the moment intriguingly grotesque instead of just painful. Where Elliott Smith’s acoustic dirges served as pretty window dressing in Good Will Hunting, here the troubadour’s mope music soothes like a necessary balm for wounds accumulated in high school hallways.
The Iraq War comes up in conversation more than once in Paranoid Park, as an abstract illustration of the type of pain and guilt disconnected masses should be feeling. Obviously, it’s a difficult emotional jump from a Portland coffee shop to a battle-scarred Baghdad, and the world is indeed too big a place for an ignorant kid to have to incorporate that kind of horror. Being a kid is about keeping responsibility at bay and dismissing causality. (In its amoral disengagement, Elephant seemed childlike to a fault.) Van Sant’s film microscopically reduces the scale of its moral universe to that of a single person—and the one stupid decision that will haunt his entire life—and by engaging fully in the experiment Paranoid Park earns its humanist stripes. By illuminating a little world where we can empathize with an “unrepentant murderer,” Van Sant momentarily awakens our potential to spread our understanding across the street, across the park, across the globe. You start small, because, well…there’s different levels of stuff.