Adapted from Blake Nelson’s young adult novel, Paranoid Park is a wonderful mystery, not so much whodunit, although that’s part of it, but as a character study. The film’s focus isn’t about solving the crime, but how the main character deals with it.
Alex (Gabe Nevins) tells his version of the story in a journal. He is in high school and a harmful incident has thrown his life into a state of confusion, causing him to withdraw and impacting matters like how he deals with the affections of the attractive Jennifer who considers them a couple and the separation of his parents.
As he goes through the events in his mind, the plot is presented out of chronological order, causing the revelations to add to the mystery. Detective Lu interviews Alex because a skateboarder is suspected in foul play related to a rail yard security guard getting run over by a train. The viewer has no idea of Alex’s involvement, if any.
As the film progresses and the truth, or at least Alex’s version of it, is presented, the viewer’s perceptions of previous scenes become altered upon reflection. The story then hits an intriguing crossroads: will Alex hear the beating of the guard’s tell-tale heart, or like Ralphie in A Christmas Story does he know “darn well it was always better not to get caught”? The answer is arrived at in a believable way. Viewers will be left curious about Alex’s future and considering rewatching the film once the story is known.
Since the story is about a young protagonist in Portland, Oregon, Gus Van Sant is as natural a choice to be writer/director as John Waters would be filming social misfits in Baltimore. Sant’s work has traversed the City of Roses many times with films such as Mala Noche, Drugstore Cowboy, and My Own Private Idaho. Skateboarding is Alex’s one escape and the artistic choices made by Sant in terms of film stock and the soundtrack perfectly convey being “in the moment.” The film’s one flaw is that a couple of the non-actors are obvious, like Alex’s female friend, the Iraq War-obsessed Macy, and while no doubt doing the best they could, they draw attention to themselves with their poor delivery of lines and looking into the camera.
Paranoid Park is an intriguing film and has the feel of a short story. I would recommend it for fans of independent films and Sant that are curious. The DVD is bare bones, containing the film alone.