Great movies stay with you in the oddest ways. In the days after I first saw Gus Van Sant's Paranoid Park, I was preternaturally attuned to the sound of skateboards dragging the street outside my bedroom windowthe slow tug of concrete, the bumping waves of wheels. This ambient strain surrounds Paranoid Park's cherubic point of focus: Alex (Gabe Nevins), a sleepy-eyed skater waiting out his parents' divorce in a Portland, Ore., suburb. He occupies most of the film's exquisitely composed frames, though he's more a figure etched in light than a proper protagonist.
Figure-eight narrations and slow-moving Steadicam tracks have underpinned Van Sant's last couple of films (2003's Elephant, 2005's Last Days), though they're more artfully embedded in Paranoid Park's fragrant sprawl, not least because of the visual equivalencies provided by the film's skateboarding footage. Blake Nelson's airless young-adult novel presents Alex's story as an extended confessional letter. Van Sant dissembles chronology and inflects the narration with associative freedom.
Most immediately, Van Sant folds Nelson's plot to delay the central trauma, which first enters our vision peripherally through a detective's investigation and a local news report. With that said, narrowing the effect of this organizing principle is a little like trying to get a fix on Phil Spector's reverb or Gerhard Richter's gray Van Sant's placid puzzling is a textural aesthetic before it's a device. Where Nelson's moral tale is a streamlined account, Van Sant's adaptation aims for something more transparent and sublime. His Alex is at once layered and laid bare.
This channeling begins with a slow-creeping tracking shot as Alex is interviewed by a detective. What begins as a conversation eventually lands as a full-frame portrait of the adolescent, the detective's words ("What's your parental situation?") left hanging in the air, irrelevant. As Nevins garbles his lines, the boundary between the nonprofessional actor and his character becomes palpably blurred. Does Van Sant's MySpace casting call automatically qualify as tawdriness? Not when Paranoid Park maintains its enigmatic distance. Indeed, Van Sant renders the film's MacBook surfaces the subdued luminescence, boxy 4:3 aspect ratio, and soundtrack shuffle from Elliot Smith to the Juliet of the Spirits score all evoke a MacBook as something unique and refined.
Like so many high school boys, Alex is essentially passive (see the film's hilarious sex scene, with talky girlfriend Jennifer's blond wisps dissolving Alex's face like something from Maya Deren's 1943 Meshes of the Afternoon). Van Sant captures this state via formal permeability, rigorously designing Paranoid Park's memory machine as a head trip. Strips of slow motion, a narrow-depth-of-field, ping-ponging sound, a mumbled voice-over all these elements serve to cover the largely amateur cast but also to project Alex's environmental interiority. This tendency reaches a swollen apex during a posttraumatic shower. The camera again draws in, and Christopher Doyle's typically luscious lensing isolates every droplet; the lighting darkens, and the blistering sheets of water-noise are overlaid with thick forest sounds as Alex drops his head, revealing the bathroom wallpaper's bird motif.
There's no buried logic to Paranoid Park, and even though it's shaped as much like a jigsaw as Donnie Darko (2001) and Rian Johnson's underappreciated Brick (2005), it doesn't invite solutions. Whether or not Alex's withholding aura is read as a symbolic closeting, Van Sant's direction is some kind of sorcery, especially in those B-roll streams of easy riders through which the film's story expands to encompass all breathless teenage riots. Paranoid Park ends with these images after cutting from Alex asleep in biology class, dreaming of flying. He never touches the ground, always hovering between idyll and responsibility, the dream and his place in it. (Max Goldberg)
Opens March 21 at Bay Area theaters