In a multiplex front-loaded with cheap jolts (Vantage Point) and cheaper jokes (how psyched are you to see College Road Trip?), filmmaker Gus Van Sant gives us a haunting tone poem laced with violent death. The setting is Portland, Oregon, where Van Sant lives and where Paranoid Park attracts the city’s riskier skateboarders. Enter Alex, a teen boarder played with bruised innocence, and a face with dew still on it, by Gabe Nevins. At the park, Alex skates in a hypnotic, vaguely homoerotic haze over issues such as his parents’ impending divorce and a virgin girlfriend (Taylor Momsen) he can barely rouse himself to screw.
One night, while riding a freight train near the park, Alex inadvertently causes the death of a security guard, whose body is cut in half on the tracks. A detective (a terrific Dan Liu) interviews Alex at school, but the circumstances of the death — at the core of Blake Nelson’s novel — mean less to Van Sant than the effect on Alex, who can’t find anyone to talk to about the tragedy. Macy (Lauren McKinney), a sympathetic girl at school, tells him that a journal is the best place for secrets, and snippets from it are as close as we get to Alex’s thinking.
Van Sant has always run from the literal. Good Will Hunting is the director’s biggest commercial success, but his heart and his art have always drawn him to more experimental projects on youthful alienation, including My Own Private Idaho, Gerry, Elephant and Last Days. In Paranoid Park, Alex’s face becomes the director’s road map. The film’s sound design, sampling Beethoven and Nino Rota, among others, links up with visual miracles performed by Rain Kathy Li and Wong Kar-Wai’s noted cinematographer, Christopher Doyle (In the Mood for Love), to take us inside Alex’s head. The result, a defiant slap at slick Hollywood formula, is mesmerizing.