Thursday, March 27, 2008

Gus Van Sant's adolescent dreams

Summary: I'm not entirely sure that Gus Van Sant's "Paranoid Park" has any single thing on its mind, but the movie suggests so much and puts so much pure filmmaking skill on display that you may not care.

"Paranoid Park" isn't exactly realistic and it isn't exactly fantasy, either. It's a kind of dreamy, self-contained look at adolescent anomie that floats into theaters in the wake of Van Sant's "Elephant" and "Last Days." Although built around a grisly death and loaded with potential guilt, the movie has a trance-like beauty. No one seems to be able to get more out of watching a kid walk down a deserted school hallway than Van Sant.

Van Sant focuses on Alex (Gabe Nevins), a teen-age boy in Portland, Oregon. Narrated by Alex as he writes in a journal, the movie moves around in time, dipping into recent incidents in Alex's life as they crop up in his memory. As played by the angelic looking Nevins, Alex seems unable to express his feelings. His face is an open book, but many of the pages seem blank. He goes with a buddy to hang out at "Paranoid Park," a place where rough kids congregate. Alex doesn't quite fit in, but he's drawn to a spot that seems beyond the bounds of rules and the attraction leads him toward a life-changing event.

Van Sant allows detail to accumulate in casual, off-handed ways. Alex has a girlfriend (Taylor Momsen) who wants to sleep with him. He's not thrilled by the prospect. Alex's parents are both seen, but only dimly. Dad has moved out of the house. Mom never quite comes into focus -- literally. A younger brother suffers from anxiety attacks.

The film also resists coming into sharp focus. Van Sant juxtaposes Super 8 footage of skateboarders with images that look more carefully composed. He also creates a provocative musical mosaic, mixing Nino Roto's score for "Juliet of the Spirits" with Beethoven and adding lots of moody pop in between. When Alex showers, Van Sant surrounds him with the increasingly plangent sounds of a rain forest.

Based on a Blake Nelson novel, "Paranoid Park" feels as if it springs from Van Sant's free-flowing consciousness, making little attempt to settle in what we might call the ordinary world. It's worth seeing and experiencing and wondering about, and it advances what seems to be Van Sant's view of youth: less a point on the age scale than a time of drift and disconnection. There seems to be no place for his characters to drop anchor, no spot from which they can gain a view of the future.

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