Eugene Weekly : Movies : 4.3.08


Parallel Parking
Van Sant flick adapts novel with dreamy precision

PARANOID PARK: Written, directed and edited by Gus Van Sant. Based on the novel by Blake Nelson. Cinematography, Christopher Doyle & Rain Kathy Li. Starring Gabe Nevins, Dan Liu, Jake Miller, Taylor Momsen and Lauren McKinney. IFC Films, 2008. R. 78 minutes.

Alex (Gabe Nevins) in Paranoid Park

You can now add Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park to the small list of film adaptations that prove to be better than the books on which they’re based. The very interior story of a teen skater dealing (or not dealing) with the ramifications of one night’s events is teased and shuffled from Blake Nelson’s average young adult novel, made contemplative and rich through careful editing, the use of textured music and sound and numerous long, lonely shots of Alex (Gabe Nevins) walking down isolated paths and empty hallways. Alex, though a gangly, slow-moving teen, is in constant motion, whether sitting on a skateboard, driving through downtown Portland, shifting in a chair or leaning against a locker. He only seems to hold still under the gaze of Detective Richard Liu (Dan Liu), who’s called all the skaters from one high school out of class. There’s been a death; a skateboard thrown into the river is involved. Under Liu’s gaze, Alex’s eyes are as wide and guileless as ever, but he pauses. There’s nowhere to go, and no way not to think.

Nelson’s early-’90s novel Girl was one of those rare books that reflected a time and a kind of person without messing up the details and thus ruining the effect. But Paranoid Park felt awkward, off, like it was trying too hard to capture an elusive authenticity. In Van Sant’s film, the elements that rattled the novel are turned to strengths. Alex’s clumsy narration sounds real, frustrated but unsure. Getting his story down on paper isn’t easy, and as he writes it all in a notebook, the story loops, turns in on itself, revisiting scenes with the music or the dialogue turned up or down and context slowly rolling in. Scenes of skaters at Paranoid Park and elsewhere (shot in grainy Super-8) offer a dreamy contrast with elegant, crisp images of Alex at the beach or at school, suggesting a degree of freedom, of youthful exuberance, that Alex can’t obtain or articulate. The soundtrack — beautiful, familiar at times, twitchy and strange at others — reflects the noise inside Alex’s head, a streaming video of thoughts and feelings for which there is no pause button.

Boston Globe critic Wesley Morris described the worlds in Van Sant’s recent films (including the striking Elephant) as “dreamt-up documentary,” a nearly perfect phrase that captures both the interior, reflective, uncertain position of Paranoid‘s main character and the immersive clarity with which the film depicts Alex and his world. There are no wrong notes; if anything, the entire film, from its images of Portland (the gorgeous St. Johns Bridge, the talent on display at Burnside Skatepark) to its dialogue between high school friends, is almost too familiar, too real, like a teen-shot mini-doc you’d stumble across on YouTube (though not a lot of YouTube videos boast Christopher Doyle cinematography). Alex is angel-faced and glassy-eyed, but he’s not stupid; that blank face is a cover. He’s sitting back, riding it out, trying to silently understand and explain with pencil and paper his place in the world, even though he doesn’t understand it — or how to deal with it — just yet.   

Paranoid Park opens Friday, April 4, at the Bijou.