Paranoid Park

Paranoid Park (2007)

Paranoid Park first published by musicOMH

Known to those who frequent it as Paranoid Park, the East Side Skate Park is a network of ramps and tunnels built by skaters for skaters – a sometimes frightening hang-out for the disaffected, dispossessed and disconnected youth of Portland, Oregon. It is also very near the location of a rail security guard’s recent, violent death under suspicious circumstances.

Richard Lu (Dan Liu), a good-natured detective, is interviewing known skaters from the local school, in the hope of getting background information on the underground community. Alex (Gabe Nevins), a dreamy kid with a troubled homelife, knows more than he is saying, and is trying to sort out his confused feelings about what happened by writing it all down in a notebook. 

A few days earlier, when his slightly older friend Jared (Jake Miller) suggested they pay their first visit to the urban playground, Alex replied, “I don’t think I’m ready for Paranoid Park”. He is feeling even less ready for the inevitable sex with his virginal girlfriend Jennifer (Taylor Momsen), or to communicate his guilt-packed story to anyone – neither family nor friends, let alone the authorities. He would rather just be left alone to hang with the ‘hardcore freaks’ at Paranoid Park, opting out of adulthood’s pull and drag.

As fragmented and disordered as the writings in Alex’s notebook, Paranoid Park is a moody, somewhat otherworldly study of the confusion, alienation and furtive secrecy of adolescence – which, despite depicting Alex’s indifferent sexual initiation with Jennifer and his graduation to the park for older skaters, comes across more as a not-coming-of-age tale. 

While there is the merest skeleton of a crime buried at the film’s core (and it opens with a noir soundtrack mash-up), director Gus Van Sant is far more concerned with disinterring on screen his protagonist’s feckless disorientation – as well as with supplying a homoerotic subtext for Alex’s disinterest in humping the local girls, and eagerness to watch all the skating at the ramps (shot in slow motion to accentuate the kinetic grace of all those male bodies). If nothing else, Alex is all about keeping his secrets in the closet, and we are left to wonder whether the openly gay Van Sant may be importing a metaphoric bent to Alex’s illicit ride on a freight train with the older, more experienced Scratch (Scott Green). 

Adapted by Van Sant from Blake Nelson’s Young Adult novel and cast with fresh faces via a MySpace page, Paranoid Park takes the viewer on a murky trawl through teen turmoil, showing a young man desperately clinging to an innocence that has already been lost. The film features chiming soundscapes of musique concrete, and cinematography from the renowned Christopher Doyle (who also cameos as Alex’s Uncle Tommy), reunited with Van Sant after their collaboration on the frame-by-frame remake of Psycho (1998). Here Wong Kar-Wai’s favourite DP captures the meandering drift of adolescence by mimicking the school corridor tracking shots from Van Sant’s earlier Elephant (2003), and by bringing the most marginal of a scene’s details into sharp focus while keeping adults’ faces largely out of the frame (a trick that goes back to Peanuts comics).

Languid, lyrical and haunting, Paranoid Park is a hidden gem in the wilderness of teen movies – but you might want to keep it to yourself.

© Anton Bitel