As a piece of art, Gus Van Sant's Paranoid Park has a lot to recommend it. It's carefully told and beautifully rendered, and it establishes an instant mood of fearfulness and dread. Van Sant proved with Elephant, his 2003 film about a school shooting, that he knows how to tap into the creepiness of the everyday — dishes clanging in a sink, a light switching on in a far-away room — and Paranoid Park uses those haunting moments to their full effect. It's the sort of film I could see playing in a constant loop in the multimedia wing of a modern art museum.
As a commercial movie, though, Paranoid Park doesn't quite add up. With non-professional actors playing many of the roles, the film has an unusual authenticity — but it also has a distracting amateurish quality. And though it's just 85 minutes long, Paranoid Park still has too much space, with too much time spent on skateboarding shots and too little spent on teasing out the main character's emotions.
The film, adapted from author Blake Nelson's young-adult novel of the same name, focuses on Alex (Gabe Nevins), a high school skateboarder who finds himself drawn to the edgy crowd at a local skate park — the illegal, dangerous Paranoid Park — as his parents' marriage is falling apart and his girlfriend (Taylor Momsen of Gossip Girl) starts pressuring him to have sex. Told through flashbacks that follow the narration from a letter Alex is writing, the film focuses on the buildup to and aftermath of one traumatic event: the night that Alex accidentally kills a security guard and decides not to tell anyone. But that's just the plot, so to hear more of my take, just read more.
Alex conveys his story in a monotone, like a kid reading aloud from a complicated book without any sense of where to place emphasis or pause for punctuation. A deliberate choice, or a sign of Nevins' inexperience as an actor? I'm not sure — and that was my problem with much of Paranoid Park. Van Sant's intentions seemed constantly obscured, whether by the acting or by the filmmaker's own artistic quirks. Is the moment of the guard's death supposed to snap Alex out of his aloof fog? Or does he remain just as removed as he was before? I spent the movie waiting for Alex's breakthrough, but it never seemed to come; right after the accident, he has a couple of moments of pure, unfettered emotion, but he fades back to his normal, inexpressive self so quickly that it's not clear what those outbursts mean.
Van Sant's direction — while thoughtful and beautiful — also keeps the audience at arm's length. One of the enduring images from Elephant is a repeating shot of an ominous sky, constantly changing as clouds swirl past. Paranoid Park has a similar motif with its interludes of grainy skateboarding footage, but rather than add to the story, the skating scenes seemed to drain energy from the film. And right after the guard's death, there's a shot that is so disgusting, I shudder even thinking of it; it felt gratuitous, and it frustrates me that my reaction seemed more visceral than Alex's.
Paranoid Park works best as a pure mood piece: Though Nevins never really conveys Alex's fear and dread, the film's claustrophobic shots, jumbled structure, and uncomfortably long pauses do that for him. But when it comes to telling a full story, Paranoid Park falls short. In the end, I felt the same alienation from the film as its lead character apparently feels from the world at large.