In Portland, Oregon, Alex is a 16-year-old boy in the midst of a crisis. Hopping a freight train at night with a homeless boy he has befriended, he and his companion are assaulted by a security guard (with a baseball bat) at whom, in self-defense, Alex flings his skateboard, causing the man to fall onto the tracks and be severed, and killed, by another train. The police, investigating, (ridiculously) claim to have tied DNA from the skateboard, which Alex tossed into the Willamette River, to the “crime scene.” Alex is under suspicion and in over his head.
At one level this horrific episode—Alex is haunted by a nightmare image of the guard’s upper half crawling across the tracks and beseeching him, silently, for help—is a metaphor for everything else that is currently besieging him as he navigates as best he can the battlefield of adolescence. Alex’s father has moved out of the house; Alex’s parents are divorcing. (In a poignant moment Alex’s younger brother play-acts at being their missing-in-domestic-action father by warning Alex to drive carefully.) His girlfriend, Jennifer, is pressuring Alex to deflower her; Alex worries that his doing so will kick their relationship up to a more “serious” level. (Shortly after they have sex, he dumps her.) There are Bush’s Iraq War and global poverty with which to contend. (Lovely detail, encapsulating adolescent self-contradiction: at one point Alex decries the state of the world; at another, when someone else mentions it, he professes a total lack of interest or concern.) There is also poverty closer to home. Alex has begun visiting East Side Skateboard Park, nicknamed Paranoid Park, which homeless youth have themselves built over an abandoned industrial site. Boys his own age, and younger, live there, whereas Alex at least can go home and sleep under a roof. In other words, bourgeois Alex is developing a “liberal” sense of social guilt. Moreover, is his introduction to this other world teasing him out of the closet? There are hints that Alex is skateboarding into acknowledgement of his homosexual orientation.
For those who insist on taking “the murder” literally, as another matter rather than as a metaphor for the rest: what an awful lot is here for a teenager to deal with.
Portland’s Gus Van Sant is certainly the filmmaker to deal with such youth-biased material. (The critics at Cahiers du Cinéma named Paranoid Park the best film of 2007. It also won the 60th Anniversary Prize at Cannes.) His script, an adaptation of the “young adult” novel by Blake Nelson, another Portlander, is extraordinarily complicated in its achronology and repetitive showcase of events, which are expressively suited to Alex’s confusion and anxiety as he relives bits and pieces of his recent past by writing things down in a journal. (Van Sant also edited.) In the process, we hear his voiceover. (In a tumultuous scene on the heels of the security guard’s death, Alex speaks aloud to himself, addressing himself by name, becoming in effect his own father in his attempt to calm himself: a wonderful passage.) As a result of this psychological process, though, Alex suppresses signs of this confusion and anxiety, showing the world instead a blank expression. Van Sant is saying that kids do this. His film attempts to bring us close to the mind and soul of a boy who is doing his best to keep us and those around him at a distance.
Another level of the film’s complexity derives from its blend of 35mm film stock, digital video and Super 8. Some passages are visually rich, others thin and shiny, and still others grainy. The skateboarding sequences are lyrical.
Throughout the film, cameras are often set low and tilted upward, suggesting Alex’s burial—his being somewhere beneath the ground. Is it possible that the entire action of Paranoid Park consists of the recollections of a teen suicide?
Footnote: A shower scene after the “murder” leans on Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), with Alex suddenly duplicating moves of Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane. Van Sant, who has made a fine film here, apparently can’t get Psycho out of his psyche.
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