I almost missed this one, almost gone from theaters. My enjoyment of Gus Van Sant's films runs hot and cold. While I like his early work, I have mixed feelings about To Die For and Good Will Hunting, I think his remake of Psycho is a huge waste of time, and I was annoyed by the ponderous experimentalism of Gerry. But in Elephant and Last Days I felt that Van Sant had managed to find a synthesis, taking the real-time minimalism of Gerry and actually giving it a use and a point, watching the simple behaviors of a selection of high school kids and a falling-apart rock star.
In Paranoid Park, based on a novel by Blake Nelson, Van Sant seems to be making a film that combines all the threads of his career: fascination with youth, simple, observational direction, evocative use of music and editing to create moods. The film centers on Alex, a teenage skateboarder in Portland, Oregon, confused by a number of different things: his parents' divorce, his girlfriend's pressure to have sex, and not least of all, the trainyard security guard whose death he may have been involved with.
The greatest success of Paranoid Park is the mood of melancholy nostalgia it evokes for our high school years, a time when everything seems in flux, when one's own identity and worldview are finally forged, and Alex (played by non-professional actor Gabe Nevins) tells everything from his own slightly askew perspective, and the hints about who he is and who he might still be are handled subtly and carefully by Van Sant and cinematographer Christopher Doyle.
Less successful in Van Sant's film world is his depiction of teenage girls, who he doesn't really seem to understand. Elephant was marred by an out-of-tune sequence in which a gaggle of teen girls banter stereotypically about boys and classes over lunch, then head into the girls' room en masse for a group purge. Huh? Maybe in a broader movie, but not one that's otherwise occupied with real-time observational reality. Likewise, Alex's girlfriend Jennifer (former Cindy Lou Who Taylor Momsen) is presented as something of an airhead status-seeker, mostly interested in having a boyfriend for the sake of having a boyfriend, jumping on her cellphone immediately after losing her virginity. It's too bad that a filmmaker of Van Sant's stature would have this kind of blind spot in his body of work, but nobody's perfect.
I'm not sure that Paranoid Park is, as a whole, as fully realized of a film as Last Days and Elephant, with their formal and thematic unities - the narrative of PP seems to start and stutter, the themes of guilt and criminality get left behind, the ending is abrupt - but it is a fascinating and revealing piece of work that deserves to be seen.