Gus Van Sant fans likely consider the late ’90s a dark time. Good Will Hunting, from a director known for working with amateur actors and subversive storylines? A shot-by-shot remake of Psycho—really? Van Sant decisively yanked his toe out of the mainstream in 2002 and continued the narrative experiment that was Gerry through three subsequent movies, including the new Paranoid Park. It’s an 85-minute daydream that’s undeniably lyrical, hypnotic, and nontraditional. But the movie also suggests it may be time for the filmmaker to remove his head from—well, let’s call it the underground—and re-find his inner Forrester.
Based on Blake Nelson’s novel, Paranoid Park feels like Elephant by way of Cameron Crowe. Like Van Sant’s 2003 interpretation of the Columbine shootings, the film is centered on a high-school student played by a newcomer and favors long shots of the character just sitting or walking around. Alex (Gabe Nevins) has reasons to be reserved: His parents are divorcing, and he’s hounded by his best friend, Jared (Jake Miller), for preferring to spend his time skateboarding, not making out with his willing girlfriend, Jennifer (Taylor Momsen). But Alex can’t even completely lose himself in his hobby, usually practicing alone because he’s “not very good” instead of joining his like-minded peers at the titular Oregon skate park.
Alex does finally visit Paranoid Park on his own, comforted by the knowledge that “no matter how bad your life was, these guys had it so much worse.” But it doesn’t take long before things go south for him as well: A security guard ends up dead near the train tracks by the park one night. Investigators come to the school to question all the skate punks, but DNA evidence ties the potential homicide to Alex.
Van Sant continues his recent trend of nonlinear narrative here. Alex’s voiceover provides a general frame for the story, in the form of an essay he’s shown writing throughout the film. But the story shifts in time, with scenes looping or repeated from a different perspective. There’s a lot—a lot—of grainy slow-motion, which is consistently mesmerizing and often beautiful in the skateboarding sequences but gets pretty tiresome when it’s the 10th time someone’s ambling down a hallway. Eventually, using scads of slo-mo feels less like a conscious aesthetic choice than a necessity to pad a very thin story. All of the action, so to speak, occurs after the accident, and we do get a glimpse of what actually happened, but neither the death itself nor its consequences are as important to Van Sant as Alex’s psyche.
Whereas such introspection was also the focus of Elephant and 2005’s Last Days, this time the director’s hyper-minimalist approach doesn’t work. Both of those films were inspired by the well-known stories of Columbine and Kurt Cobain, respectively, and their familiarity elicited a built-in tension: We could be both lulled and unsettled by the camera’s extended shots of the mundane and calm, knowing exactly what the result would be, regardless of whether it actually happened onscreen. But Alex’s ordeal is new to anybody who hasn’t read Nelson’s novel, and it’s also unresolved—the abrupt endings of No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood look like neatly tied bows in comparison.
What does work in Paranoid Park is Van Sant’s bold use of music, from (the admittedly predictable) Elliott Smith to old country to cheerier numbers that sound like a cross between circus melodies and Lawrence Welk. And the director’s instinct to use a nonprofessional again pays off: Nevins is awkward, natural, and sympathetic, with an open, innocent face that helps keep even the dullest interludes watchable. His success as Alex, though, ultimately makes the film all the more frustrating—if he weren’t so interesting, we wouldn’t care that his story ultimately goes nowhere.