The memory plays tricks, but not enough to change the past. Filmmakers can do the same, sometimes shedding a little more light on the subject. Gus Van Sant in his stark, cryptic new film manipulates chronology as if he were playing a shell game, and by the end neither the deceptions nor the revelations seem to win out. He subjects his story to such an aloof, rigorous dissection, it’s hard not to dismiss the whole thing as a cold technical exercise, a warm-up for the more serious challenges of his upcoming Milk.
That is, it would be if the film were not so hard to shake off. But it lingers in the memory, one image especially. And that’s the image that 16-year-old Alex (Gabe Nevins) is trying to forget. An undistinguished teen (he skateboards in private because he doesn’t think he’s good enough to go public), he suffers the usual problems: demanding girlfriend, separated parents, stoner friends. But recently he’s experienced something beyond the usual, something that has to do with “Paranoid Park,” the derelict concrete lot that the hardcore skateboarders have transformed into a refuge and an arena of initiation. Macy (Lauren McKinney), one of his more observant acquaintances, asks, half ironically, what’s wrong. He tells her that there are “different levels” to life and suggests that what’s happened to him transcends the normal.
Van Sant tries to re-create Alex’s process of comprehending what happened and deciding what to do about it while at the same time withholding information. A detective interviews Alex at school about a recent crime. Alex writes down a narrative about the events in a notebook — these are read in voiceover and shown in flashback — that circle and stop, getting closer and closer to the moment of truth. He calls his estranged father at 3 am to spill his guts, then hangs up. He tries to confess it all to Macy, who suggests he write it all down in a letter to someone he knows, “like me.”
Hence the notebook, and the suggestion by the end that the process of artistic re-creation is the most efficacious form of denial. But Van Sant’s film doesn’t try to moralize, or point up the primitive, conscienceless tribal nature of adolescence, like Lord of the Flies or Tim Hunter’s chilling River’s Edge (1986). The problem here is not peer pressure but the nature of solitude. Alex is dealing in utter isolation with an unbearable truth. Paranoia, indeed.
Some have groaned over the film’s obliqueness and its repetition, citing in particular the visual refrain of skateboarders undulating back and forth in slow motion in grainy Super 8 or washed-out video. Such touches, along with the standard interludes of time-lapse cloud formations and a soundtrack that at times resembles outtakes from the Beatles’ “Revolution Number 9,” do seem drawn from the indie arthouse playbook.
But the skateboarders, at least, are justified. They mirror Alex’s indecisiveness about what he’s done and what he should do; they also posit a kind of equilibrium, that of a pendulum, which has a resting point. Paranoid Park is a coming-of-age tale that begins not in medias res but from the still center of a swirling kaleidoscope. It’s a film where growing up doesn’t mean taking responsibility so much as it does establishing a point of view.