Gus Van Sant's latest film, Paranoid Park, adapts Blake Nelson's young adult of crime and non-punishment, as a Portland teen, Alex (Gabe Nevins) accidentally kills a security guard late one night. More than a little adrift in a world where adult supervision is either vaguely distracted or completely absent, Alex tries to come to terms with what he's done. ... Paranoid Park's along the same lines of Van Sant's recent films -- Elephant, Last Days, Gerry -- all explorations of the adolescent (or post-adolescent) state, full of long tracking shots of the backs of people's heads and full of a simmering discontent that manifests itself as either shrugging apathy or homicidal fury. The ugly fact is that Van Sant's recent modus operandi has crossed the line from 'groove' to 'rut' - he's become the filmmaking equivalent of Dazed and Confused's Wooderson: He gets older, but his protagonists stay the same age.
And as protagonists go, Alex is pretty unreliable; Paranoid Park (the title refers to the unofficial skatepark that Alex boards at) unfolds as Alex writes down the happenings of the past few days. "I didn't do so well in creative writing, but I'll get it all on paper eventually." Nevins may not be an actor (Van Sant cast the film putting an open call for auditions on My Space) but he's easy enough to watch - sleepily charismatic, agreeably engaging. And Van Sant's adaptation of Nelson's novel has a nice ear for the self-aware, self-mocking tone of modern teen discourse. When his friend, plucky punk Macy (Lauren McKinney) asks about Alex leaving his cheerleader girlfriend Jennifer (Taylor Momsen) "Why'd you break up with her?" Alex cuts to what she's really asking: "You mean, why'd I go out with her?
But these insights come between long shots of skateboarding, walking, showers; cinematographer Christopher Doyle's work here is as good as the rest of his films (Lady in the Water, In the Mood for Love); it's a shame that so much of it feels, frankly, like padding. I wasn't expecting Paranoid Park to be a suspense film or a procedural -- and it isn't -- but the tension inherent in the premise is undercut by the portrait of the Portland cops as clueless nerds (" ... if we reach out to the skateboarding community. ...") and the staging of the murder. (Not to spoil the movie with specifics, but there's a plot thread that dangles and dangles, going from annoying to infuriating along the way.)
Adolescent angst and anomie are fine fuel for filmmaking -- Alex himself notes that "It just feels like there's something outside of normal life; teachers, breakups, girls. ..." Watching Paranoid Park's meanderings and musings, though, I found myself turning inward -- not engaged by the movie but more curious about what happened to the filmmaker who made rough, vital grown-up movies like To Die For, Drugstore Cowboy, even Elephant. Van Sant's interest in youth and young manhood has gone from topic to trap in his recent filmography, and I have to wonder when -- or if -- the fierce filmmaking of his earlier career will return.