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Van Sant's 'Paranoid Park,' a Tragic Triumph

Gus Van Sant embodies the notion of the director as conceptual artist: He regards everything he does as some kind of experiment. His first film, Mala Noche, was a tale of romantic obsession that played like an expressionist fever dream. Then came Drugstore Cowboy, outrageous in its premise — the addict as Western outlaw — but conventional in technique, then My Own Private Idaho, conventional in its theme of teen alienation but outrageous in technique--a mix of Shakespeare, surrealism and urban grit.

When Van Sant made formula studio pictures like Good Will Hunting, he told interviewers he was working in the tradition of Renaissance artists who strive to suppress their personal voices. I'm not kidding. A remake of Hitchcock's Psycho posed the question: If you replicate a film shot-by-shot, what will you wind up with? It turns out, nothing pretty.

Paranoid Park belongs in the series that began with Van Sant's Gerry and continued with Elephant and The Last Days: trancelike works in which you drift through time and space with non-actors, or actors behaving like non-actors. It's the best of those free-form works, a supernaturally perfect fusion of his art-project head-trip aesthetic and Blake Nelson's finely tuned first-person "young adult" novel.

The protagonist and narrator, Alex, played by Gabe Nevins, is a Portland, Ore., teen whose father has moved out and who gravitates toward a grotty skate park for what he calls, in voice-over, "thrown-away kids." One day, Alex gets called to the school office, where a detective played by Dan Liu asks about a grisly death near Paranoid Park.

It's revealed via flashback that Alex was at the scene of the death — although guilt or innocence are inadequate to describe what he did. Although he longs to tell someone — his father, who seems oblivious to his needs, or even that detective — he pulls into himself.

Nelson's book is linear and even invokes Dostoevsky, since Alex is reading Notes from Underground. Van Sant dumps Dostoevsky and ruptures the narrative line to drive home Alex's inability to get at his own mixed-up feelings. The director and cinematographer Christopher Doyle leap from the static and realistic to the dreamlike and woozy, with Super 8 skateboard footage that seems to bubble up from the collective unconscious of the misfits of Paranoid Park.

The soundtrack is a vivid mash-up — Beethoven, country, the melancholy Elliot Smith capped with Fellini-esque carnival music that drowns out Alex's cheerleader girlfriend. Electroacoustic collages mix ambient drones with nature sounds. Loss of nature is a theme: The movie often returns to a beach where Alex scribbles in a notebook, recounting his story in an effort to bring himself back into the world.

Van Sant found his leading actor from a casting notice on MySpace, and Nevins has a good, soft face — a 7-year-old's head on a 17-year-old's body. There are times when his inexpressiveness is a little too inexpressive, but the voice-over narration keeps the movie grounded, and Alex's tumultuous emotions are right there in the film's look and sound.

In life, when you look at a teenage boy with no expression, his clothes drooping, his long hair in his eyes, perhaps toting a skateboard, you might construe his blank affect as a sign of the blankness within. But in Van Sant's hands, that supposed void turns out not to be too empty, but too full. Paranoid Park is a trip into space — not outer but inner, in ways that movies rarely are. This time, the experiment is a raging success.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

David Edelstein is a film critic for New York magazine and for NPR's Fresh Air, and an occasional commentator on film for CBS Sunday Morning. He has also written film criticism for the Village Voice, The New York Post, and Rolling Stone, and is a frequent contributor to the New York Times' Arts & Leisure section.