In the late '90s, Blake Nelson's debut novel, Girl, was turned into a feature film starring Dominique Swain. While the adaptation can be strangely addictive for its utter badness, it was a far cry from its source material -- the grunge, the feeling, the spark were all sapped from it and what remained was a goofy tale about a girl trying to be cool to get the guy. (Although it was one of the only films I liked Tara Reid in.) Gus Van Sant did not have this problem bringing the next adapted Nelson novel, Paranoid Park, to the big screen. The director understands the kids of Nelson's Portland, and they're every bit as grungy and real as you could imagine. Unfortunately, that's just about all the film has going for it.
This adaptation was so bland on the big screen that I actually found myself itching for Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. Like Girl, this is a tale of suburban kids looking to shed their comfortable, middle-class living for some street-class cred. Where Andrea visited clubs and wore cow dresses, Alex (Gabe Nevins) heads to the local skateboard park, nicknamed Paranoid Park, with his friend. Alex is mesmerized by rolling skateboarders, but feels he isn't good enough to participate. One night, he goes back on his own and befriends some kids who say they live there. Then, time jumps forward and backward to tell Alex's story. During an interview with a police detective, we learn that a security guard who was found dead near the park might have been murdered. From Alex's actions, it is obvious that he knows something about this crime, and Van Sant ties the strings together slowly.
The strings are tied so slowly, in fact, that the entire story could be said in a quarter of the time -- without losing one bit of dialog. Sandwiched between almost every expository scene is a slow-motion scene of some action -- usually skating or Alex walking. Over and over, the progression of the story is sufficiently stalled by these scenes. While a bit of slow motion here or there can enhance skating technique or create tension, Van Sant's overuse of the technique is grating, and it often takes away the impressive slickness of the skateboarders he is filming.
The final nail in this cinematic coffin is the acting. The only way this story can work is to feel for the characters and experience the drama with them. Instead, you can close your eyes and imagine a bunch of normal kids reading the script in class. Each time Alex runs into Macy (Lauren McKinney), his classmate, she grins and looks off-screen -- but it doesn't feel like she's nervous, it feels like the actress is stifling a giggle and getting cues for her lines. But this awkward, stiffly-performed feeling isn't only from the young actors. For example -- Detective Richard Lu (Daniel Liu), who questions Alex, can't believably pull off his role, and each line and question seems shockingly fake.
I really wanted to like Paranoid Park. Blake Nelson is a pro at writing engaging adolescent worlds, and while Van Sant has had his duds, there is a reason we all know his name. It's hard, because you can see the potential in the story, which makes the actual result an unappetizing, tedious tease. Were this some young, uber-indie, school film, I could give it a break, but Gus has more talent than this -- and he really needs to find it again.