Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Movies: Paranoid Park

One of my many cinematic obsessions (and perhaps one of my less healthy ones) is the disturbed adolescent boy (as found in Storytelling and L.I.E. for example). This obsession was most likely born in high school and college, when my friend and I would go the independent movie theater in the rain to see what had at first appeared sexy and what quickly became depressing. But it was the good kind of depressing—the kind that, in the raining twilight of the Embarcadero, being a teenager, you wanted to hold on to. I still, in fits of immaturity, grasp at that feeling, and find myself going to see movies like Paranoid Park, knowing no more than the fact that they feature a disturbed adolescent boy (bonus points: he's a skater). This was a far stronger motivating factor than knowing that it was a Gus Van Sant movie (I adored Gerry, but. . . Last Days, Elephant, and Good Will Hunting. . . not so much at all).

One night in the rain, high schooler Alex (the mysterious Gabe Nevins, whose IMDB page offers little to no information) goes to the rather intimidating East Side Skate Park (known to insiders as Paranoid Park) without telling anyone where he is. He meets an older, somewhat unsavory character (who somewhat too overtly looks like his father (who is in the process of divorce and doesn't live at home)); they walk out to the nearby railyards and jump a freight train to get some beers. A security guard comes running after them, wielding his nightstick, and Alex bats him off with his skateboard; the guard looses balance and falls backward, right into an oncoming train, which completely severs his upper body from his lower. The older guy runs away and Alex, after stopping for a moment to look into the still-alive eyes of the severed man, who drags his torso a few inches across the dirt, does the same, heaving his skateboard into the river, and throwing his bloody hoodie into a dumpster.

This sets off the existential tailspin in which Alex is the middle when we first meet him (the movie doesn't progress in order). All the skaters at his high school are being questioned by the police (who don't quite know what happened, but think a skater was involved due to the proximity of the railyards to the skate park. . . bad detective-ing, if you ask me), and if that weren't hassle enough, Alex's cheerleader girlfriend Jennifer (the spectacularly vixenish Taylor Momsen) is insistent upon their loss of virginity (that's a perfectly storyboarded scene, in which she climbs up on him and we see nothing but the mellifluous strands of her long, straight hair flecked with light as they hang down over their faces, and then, abruptly, she is quickly dressing and running into the bathroom with her cell phone to squeal "Yeah we just did it! It was amazing!" The scene in which Alex then breaks up with her is equally perfect, with the sound of her tantrum turned completely off, in her cheerleading uniform on the field with the rest of the squad loosely ringed around behind her, we stare numbly at her moving mouth, feeling as little as Alex does.) He deals with all of this pressure by writing it down, as recommended by the perfectly cast and styled Macy (Lauren McKinney), who looks like any teenaged skater girl you might see at a middle-American mall, and who emerges as his only real friend. (If you want the plot spoiled, I'll spoil it: he never gets caught).

Paranoid Park was a completely watchable movie (unlike Last Days), but too plot-driven to channel the existential brilliance of Gerry. In its most "experimental" moments (I didn't find it to be all that experimental at all, but I did read it often reviewed as such), it failed miserably, and were I editor, I'm certain that Mr. Van Sant and I would have had a falling out over the long, slowed-down shots that dramatize Alex walking through the hall of his high school, shaggy long hair and voluminous unzipped hoodie presciently bouncing. These shots feel tedious and consciously "artsy," while the rest of the movie is a pretty limpid story about teenagers. The best shots (also arguably "artsy," but in a gritty, rather than pretentious way) are those of the skaters at the skate park, who zip up and down graffiti-covered concrete curves on digital film stock to a gorgeous ambient soundtrack, catching air in the silent spaces where we try to catch our breath.

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