LOST BOY: Gabe Nevins plays a kid in deep trouble in 'Paranoid Park.'
Gus Van Sant rolls with the skateboard kids in 'Paranoid Park'
By Richard von Busack
WHAT KEEPS young adult fiction young, in the bad sense of the word "young," is the moralizing. The publishers probably insist on it, and the writers internalize that necessity. Every given young-adult novel can be boiled down to one key problem, from which all other problems arise. I'm aware of the esteem in which Paranoid Park has been held so far, and certainly director Gus Van Sant has his strongest film since before his 1998 remake of Psycho. The novel casting of YouTube auditioners gives him Bresson-like models to imprint his story on. Behind the camera, Christopher Doyle makes this maybe the best-looking shot-in-Portland film I have ever seen. I'm not at all saying that Portland is an unattractive city, just a hard one to photograph. After all that time in Hong Kong, Doyle is used to working under thick clouds, and the ambient lousy weather of the Oregon metropolis shimmers onscreen. In slow motion, the lazy half-turn and midair hover of skateboarders looks seriously dreamy. Based on one of the five young-adult novels Blake Nelson wrote between 1993 and today, Paranoid Park is about Alex (Gabe Nevins), a dedicated skater from a middle-class home. He is in trouble; he lied to his mom to go out and skate at night with the urban scruffs under the bridge. Afterward, something happened that he'd like very much to forget. The police come to school. From the busy, friendly and false way the homicide Detective Lu talks to the kids, it's obvious that they know something. You can almost recommend a movie on the grounds that it has a new type of homicide detective. Observe Dan Liu's portrayal of a cop: fast-talking, brisk, full of busy, slightly false-sounding sharing from his own life. He's so quick that even the suspicious high school students can't read him. (Naturally, Liu is a nonprofessional actor and a professional police officer.)
Later, when Alex is alone, he scrawls the true story of the what happened that bad night. His horrible guilt affects his relations with the two girls in his life: Jennifer (Taylor Momsen), who is pressuring him for sex, and the smarter but plainer Macy (Lauren McKinney), his pal. Since this is sourced in young-adult lit, we get one good girl and one bad girl. Alex's parents are passive, in middivorce, and have as many features as a crayon drawing. The eclectic soundtrack includes Beethoven, lots of recycled Nino Rota and a gunfighter ballad by the late Alabama singer J.D. "Cast" King. I loved listening in, but the iPod-on-shuffle soundtrack seems to contextualize the images rather than the other way around. These songs know what they're about; I'm not always sure Van Sant always knows what he's about. He seems to work from hunches, and they don't always pay off. Nevins' superficially placid child-man removes all the inflections, just as he was supposed to do; he has much the same face whether listening to his little brother yammer away plot points from Napoleon Dynamite or lying to the police. As good as moments in this film are, I'm not sure if Alex is more than what the too-simple plot makes him out to be: a beautiful creature who did something ugly once.
PARANOID PARK (R; 90 min.), directed and written by Gus Van Sant, based on a novel by Blake Nelson, photographed by Christopher Doyle and Kathy Li and starring Gabe Nevins and Daniel Liu, opens March 14 at Camera 3 in San Jose.
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