Paranoid Park (****)

Paranoid Park (****)

Gus Van Sant’s fans, dwindling in number though they may be, like to enthuse about transcendent moments in his cinema—moments that to non-fans come off as plodding, hollow and, if beautiful young men are involved, unnecessarily and uncomfortably lecherous. Paranoid Park, the director’s latest, is patently his—all of his themes and tactics are here in droves, occasionally to the film’s detriment—but it goes a long way toward substantiating his fans’ claims.

Paranoid Park is proof of the usefulness of Van Sant’s post–Finding Forrester experimentation, which seemed to hit a wall with his last film, the tedious Kurt Cobain-inspired Last Days. With Paranoid Park, one notices, finally, why he’s doing what he’s been doing. Based on a novel by Blake Nelson, the film crawls into the consciousness of Alex (Gabe Nevins), a Portland skater linked to a murder in a city park. The action arrives in fragments: as in Elephant, with which it has much in common, Paranoid Park’s horrific central act pops out only once, though every scene bears its abject taint.

Paranoid Park succeeds where Elephant doesn’t because it is at once closely engaged with and far away from its central character. Van Sant has perhaps never nailed down the concept of teenage trauma so successfully: the point of Paranoid Park is how unformed Alex is as a human being, how the crisis is creating an individual, a conscience, where none existed before. It is not about lost innocence, a concept typically romanticized and over-stylized in the director’s previous work.

Cinematographer Christopher Doyle helps so much to make Paranoid Park what it is that he deserves a co-writing credit. Where would the film’s striking, defining scenes—including a shower incident that is as meaningful as Elephant’s is empty—be without him? Yet Van Sant’s delicate guiding of his actors, all of whom (as in Elephant) are untrained, is the film’s real coup. Indeed, one of Paranoid Park’s best moments—in which Alex and his skater peers confront an investigator and scoff at gruesome crime scene photos, revealing all their ridiculous prejudices in the process—is about as far from transcendent as you can get.

Paranoid Park is now playing at The Royal (608 College St.).