Go crazy for Gus Van Sant's new "Paranoid Park

By Amy Shaunette

It is always a true cinematic event when a new Gus Van Sant film hits theaters, and the buzz over his latest movie, “Paranoid Park,” was high. After premiering at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, “Paranoid Park” is now playing in most cities. The film, based on Blake Nelson’s novel of the same title, follows high school junior Alex, played by newcomer Gabe Nevins, as he throws himself into the skateboard culture of Paranoid Park, an urban skate park in Van Sant’s adopted hometown of Portland, Ore. Alex’s life slowly unravels when he becomes involved in the accidental death of a security guard. Van Sant focuses on Alex’s various coping mechanisms and reactions.

What any Van Sant audience must realize is that his films, especially of late, are not exactly movies made for sheer entertainment. Van Sant is artistic almost to a fault, and “Paranoid Park” finds the director at his finest, complete with his infamous long shots which follow characters walking down halls and sidewalks, a cast of non-professional young actors and grainy scenes shot with Super-8 film. “Paranoid Park” features several interludes of quiet, peaceful scenes of teenagers skateboarding, juxtaposed by eerily soft French music.

Van Sant is intensely fascinated by the teenage mind and daily life, and the connection he feels to his actors is impossible to miss. He picked Nevins for the starring role after seeing his MySpace page, and the actor’s every movement, facial expression, even breath seems carefully directed by Van Sant. The two are a perfect pair. Nevins plays apathetic Alex with startling ease and vulnerability. Van Sant understands adolescence like no other filmmaker. In one scene, Alex says he realizes that there’s more to life than school and girlfriends and that he feels like he should care about hungry children in Africa more, yet his politically-minded friend can’t get him to give the war in Iraq a second thought.

As a movie-watcher, I have a strong bias in support of Van Sant for two reasons: one, I live in Portland, and two, I was an extra in his 2003 school shooting drama “Elephant,” which made watching “Paranoid Park” a strange déj -vu experience. Van Sant’s style is comforting to me because I can picture him rolling the camera past my own face; I can imagine him speaking with Nevins. But it doesn’t take much to recognize a Van Sant film, and his highly individual style is visible in every second of “Paranoid Park.” He tells a story without being overly concerned about the beginning or the end, allowing the audience to focus on the visuals and think about the message later.

A side note for any Portlanders is that the film is almost smothered in Portland scenery and namedropping. The city’s bridges, downtown buildings and urban hangouts haunt nearly every scene, and some segments take place on the Oregon Coast. The best Portland shoutout in the film is a scene in which Alex watches a news report of the murder, delivered by Portland’s Ken Boddie, a real news anchor on the KOIN News 6 channel.

Even if artistic cinema ain’t your thang, there are two reasons to see “Paranoid Park” that should attract anyone: young hottie Taylor Momsen, an actress from The CW’s “Gossip Girl,” co-stars, and the security guard dies by getting his body cut in half by a freight train. Van Sant does not hold back on the gore-the severed torso crawls across the train tracks, leaving a trail of blood. But those are petty perks, and “Paranoid Park” is an intelligent, beautifully-filmed must-see.