If there is such a thing as a psychological and cultural petri dish, it’s high school. Small wonder then that high schools have been chosen as the backdrop for countless dramas and comedies. Half-formed rational minds battling raging hormones and crippling self-awareness in an authoritarian setting. Bottomless gold to be mined.
There’s also a lot of mundanity and isolation, a lot of silent crying out, and it’s this that Gus Van Sant tries to capture in “Paranoid Park,” his newest independent film.
“Paranoid Park” is the story of a young skater named Alex who’s dealing with the impending divorce of his parents, the looming specter of sex with his virgin girlfriend, a need for acceptance among older and more talented skaters, and the memory of accidentally killing a man.
Alex finds escape from his girlfriend and parents at a popular skate park known as Paranoid Park. It’s a vicious and scary place, but Alex finds himself drawn to the talents and experiences of the older skaters. There he meets one of the residents of the park, who offers to take him on a freight train ride. On the train, they’re accosted by a security guard, who Alex tries to knock away with his skateboard. The guard falls under the wheels of another oncoming train and Alex is left alone, wondering whom he can tell.
Van Sant gives us a note-perfect portrayal of teen-age life here, realistic enough to dredge up some of those old fumbling pubescent emotions you worked so hard to shed. He also clearly and vividly evokes Alex’s fog and alienation — there is nowhere he can go that seems to suit him, except where he is alone. There is no one he can talk to, other than the notebook where he writes about what happened.
As we follow him from place to place, we’re shown the poetry of small things that he sees but cannot express, usually painted as dream-like montages: kids leaping through the air on their boards, a field of weeds dancing in the wind, a penetrating smile from the acne-scarred face of a teen-age girl. This is briefly shattered by the death of the security guard, a grisly scene that demolishes the mundane in Alex’s life, only to fling him headlong back into it. Alex is now even more alone than before, shuffling through the same unstable world but shouldering a weight no kid can carry.
The story itself is compelling stuff, but unfortunately Van Sant takes us through it at a glacial pace. Even with a running time of 84 minutes, the movie is far longer than it should be. When he has new things to tell us, the movie is very good, but I sat through much of it waiting for those moments to come. Sometimes those slow-motion montages of his begin to feel like the real reason he made the movie in the first place, as if he adapted the story for the screen just to show us some pretty pictures he had in his head. On the downbeats, the movie is ponderous, sometimes cloyingly so.
Much like teen-age life, you might retort, and suggest that that was Van Sant’s point, but there’s a fine line between depicting the tedium of life and actually being tedious. “Paranoid Park” does both, and the result is not a bad film, but a far cry from the best he has to offer.