‘Paranoid Park’ skates through chaotic youth

Perhaps the most visually arresting shot in Gus Van Sant’s new film, Paranoid Park, captures a string of skateboarders as they soar one by one across the frame in mid-air. In slow motion, the skaters enter and exit the frame as the still camera surveys them with an adoring Bazinian gaze. There are no backbreaking tricks – the skaters simply float along – but the beauty of and attention paid to this image enables us to see much more than what normally meets the eye: the careful interplay between skater and board, the graceful contraction of the ahuman form and the serenity of flying. This shot is, in many ways, a microcosm of the entire film, which is far more concerned with subtleties and atmosphere than with suspense or action.

With Paranoid Park, Van Sant continues his exploration of the intimate chaos of adolescence. Best known for his direction of Good Will Hunting, Van Sant has, in recent years, returned to the arthouse style that first brought him notoriety with Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho, and more recently with Elephant. For this film, like Elephant, Van Sant employed a cast of mainly unprofessional actors and shot it in his hometown of Portland, Ore., resulting in a personal, unaffected film.

Newcomer Gabe Nevins stars as Alex, a 16-year-old skater boy whose already troubled life has just gotten more complicated. On top of his uninvolved, separated parents and his manipulative girlfriend, Alex has accidentally caused the death of a security guard and has decided to remain silent. While illegally riding the side of a freight train, Alex shoves away the trailing security guard, who falls and is graphically hit by another train. Although the police get involved, this film is not about a murder investigation – it is an investigation of those tricky adolescent emotions and how one copes when they are boiling within. With no one to confide in and overwhelmed with guilt, Alex drifts along in an uneasy state of detachment that Van Sant and acclaimed cinematographer Christopher Doyle capture with striking, emotionally replete visuals.

The film’s nonlinear structure – it’s told in occasionally disordered flashbacks – contributes to the notion that Van Sant is more interested in setting a mood and exploring emotions than with a traditional narrative arc. In fact, not much happens over the film’s 84 minutes. The story doesn’t develop; it blooms to reveal all of the complexities that lie beneath the ostensibly simple façade of growing up in middle-class America. The lack of suspense does, at times, make the film feel sluggish, but more importantly, Van Sant creates a rawness that is captivating in itself.

The title refers to a legendary skate park in Portland that is not central to the plot but is metaphorically relevant. The park, which is home or haven to a number of wayward souls, seems to represent the complexity of adolescence. Filled with hills, jumps and bumps, skaters crossing paths, ascending, descending and crashing, the park is bustling beneath the cement roof that can only signify the internal pandemonium of those angst-ridden teenage years.

Alex has resolved to write down his feelings instead of verbalizing them, and the film may as well be his personal diary. This is Alex’s story, told entirely from his perspective and interwoven with his subjective memories, and it seems as if we are made privy to his mind as he attempts to make sense of this emotional whirlwind.

The eerie aesthetic of this film speaks more loudly than the characters in it. In retrospect, the dialogue seems quite juvenile, but we don’t even notice it as we watch because the mood makes words irrelevant. I wouldn’t be surprised if it worked equally well as a silent film. This will frustrate viewers who prefer the typical slick Hollywood fare, but it leads to a film with an emotional burden that sticks with you long after you exit the theater.