- The Washington Times - Friday, March 21, 2008

The title of Gus Van Sant’s “Paranoid Park” has multiple meanings, which hint at the many levels on which this moody cinematic exercise operates.

First and foremost, the name refers to the tough underground skate park that the film’s in-the-know teens call Paranoid Park. Working with cinematographers Christopher Doyle and Rain Kathy Li, Mr. Van Sant establishes the locale’s mythic, otherworldly quality — and, thus, its important role in the main characters’ lives — through grainy, slow-motion Super 8 footage that shows gangly bodies soaring and sliding through the cement landscape.

Paranoid Park, it seems, is a dream state — until someone turns up murdered in a train lot nearby and the protagonist, high school student and skater Alex (Gabe Nevins), is drawn into the investigation. The once-paradisiacal place turns nightmarish in Alex’s mind as his synapses fill with haunting memories of what happened that evening. The park that once signified freedom now traps him, agitated and anxious, in a corner.

Paired together, the physical and mental planes of Paranoid Park work to show that being a teenager means navigating all types of tough terrain, using a moral compass that may not yet be prepared for such environments.

Based on the book by Blake Nelson, the film tells its story in nonlinear fashion via an interesting device: Alex reading aloud from his written account of events, frequently hopping back and forth between past and present.

This teenaged voice is extremely well-written and well-executed. Mr. Van Sant’s language feels highly authentic, and he perfectly captures the matter-of-fact way with which youngsters treat and talk about the dramas in their lives — in this case, the divorce of Alex’s parents, his hesitation to become sexually active and his role in whatever may have happened that ill-fated night.

Mr. Nevins propels the character further toward the realm of realism with his sometimes stuttered, often monotonous delivery (the quintessential voice of disaffected youth), his rough edges and his nonchalance.

Because we can see where the film is going — and it runs out of meaty new details by the halfway point — “Paranoid Park” might feel a bit draggy to some viewers. To others, this nonjudgmental character study will fit right in alongside Mr. Van Sant’s best tales about the troubled margins, including “My Own Private Idaho” and “Drugstore Cowboy.”

***

TITLE: “Paranoid Park”

RATING: R (for some disturbing images, language and sexual content)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Gus Van Sant. Based on the novel by Blake Nelson.

RUNNING TIME: 85 minutes

WEB SITE: www.ifcfilms.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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