Paranoid ParkDirected by Gus Van SantStarring Gabe Nevins, Daniel Liu, Taylor Momsen and Jake MillerRated R*7*
Goes well with: Elephant, River's Edge, Blue Velvet
Gus Van Sant's films aren't for everyone. They're often slow and somewhat ponderous, but the man is a true artist who explores the world around him through his medium. He continues his odd, painful examination of the disaffected state of America's youth with the dreamy Paranoid Park, completing what might be considered an unofficial trilogy that began with the terrific Elephant and continued with the ultimately too-slow rumination on Kurt Cobain, Last Days. The new film examines Alex (Gabe Nevins), a young Portland skateboarder who is involved in a tragic accident and tries to make sense of his role in what happened. But it's really about the point of view of teenagers and how disconnected they are from society. The story isn't told in a linear manner, as Alex narrates different events at different times. But it isn't just the audience that struggles to make sense of the timeline—Alex, who might as well be uncomfortably delivering an oral report in English class—is unclear on how he wants to remember the events of that night.
Alex's real problem is that once the accident occurs, he has nowhere to turn. He suddenly experiences something bigger than himself, and he is no longer like other kids. He can't really talk with his skater friend Jared (Jake Miller).
His dippy cheerleader girlfriend Jennifer (Taylor Momsen) is just idiotic, and his little brother only wants to talk about Napoleon Dynamite. Even his friend Macy (Lauren McKinney), who seems to understand that something bad has gone down, can only give him one-way advice because Alex can't bring himself to open up to her.
And adults are even worse. His parents are getting divorced, and he and his peers barely exist in the same world as the adults around them. Aside from the police detective (Daniel Liu) investigating the accident, the faces of the film's grown-ups are almost never seen, a Van Sant device that is actually quite brilliant, because during the occasional moments when their faces are in focus, we—and Alex—finally hear what they have to say. But that doesn't happen much, because the other kids feel completely disconnected from them. “Grown-ups do stuff for money,” says one of Alex's skater buddies. “There is no other reason.” Alex lies and lies and lies to all the adults he encounters, entirely as an act of self-preservation, while the truth is tearing him up.
Like many of his previous films, Van Sant went out and found a non-actor to play the lead. It's fitting that in a film that looks at the state of mind of America's youth, the director found Nevins via a casting call on MySpace. The result is a performance that's terrifically fresh.
The real question is, however, how correct Van Sant is about youth today. Do they have hidden depths, or are they simply too immature to understand and deal with the consequences of their actions? Many of the young characters in his recent films are emotionally cut off, stunted, unable to truly accept themselves or the people around them. But most adults, though they have more life experience and more maturity, are still just muddling through their lives and their emotions.
No, kids aren't designed or generally brought up to deal with the sort of tragic experience Alex has, but it's worth remembering that most grown-ups were kids themselves, and they, too, are often emotionally ill-equipped to deal with the challenges life throws at them.