Gus Van Sant's relentless focus on the point of view of teenage boys makes you wonder. Is Van Sant suffering from a case of arrested adolescence? Or is there something in the vantage of teenage boys that speaks to larger themes?
He's not alone. We can see this point of view from other directors' focused teens, from Gregg Araki (Mysterious Skin) and Larry Clark (Wassup Rockers) to Catherine Hardwicke (Thirteen). Like his contemporaries, Van Sant probably responds to the vulnerability of the teenage consciousness and sees in it an antidote to the hard, mean culture of the grown-up world.
The hero of Paranoid Park, Van Sant's latest, certainly advertises his fragility and confusion. Sixteen-year-old Alex (Gabe Nevins), his face often obscured by a knit cap and a wild mass of hair, is a classic high school skate punk.
Despite having his share of problems, Alex is the kind of kid soulful enough to tell his friend Macy (Lauren McKinney) that his problems are really minor if you consider the war in Iraq. Yes, Alex's parents are getting divorced and his virginal girlfriend Jennifer (Taylor Momsen) is pressuring him into the kind of serious commitment that first sex signifies. But Alex surveys his fellow teenagers on the outlaw, underground skate scene at Paranoid Park and observes of the throwaway kids and train hoppers: "No matter how bad your family life was, these kids had it much worse."
But the biggest blow to Alex's foggy equilibrium materializes one night at the park. An older boy with a slightly diabolical air begs to borrow his deck, then invites Alex to the freight yard to hop a train. Devastating complications arise. There is a security guard. An altercation. The slo-mo idyll becomes a nightmare.
As in many of his other films that play with point of view, Van Sant takes a disordered, Rashomon approach to this defining tragedy. He moves around in time to register the huge impact of this crime even as Alex suggests dispassionate, emotional remove. He coolly deflects the questions of a zealous detective (Dan Liu) who visits the school. Then the film goes back in time and Alex is throwing up in the school bathroom after looking at photos of the tragedy.
Van Sant has treated these lost boys before: the final moments of Kurt Cobain as he floats aimlessly through a Seattle mansion in Last Days, or the languorous, slow crawls down high school hallways before the school shooting in his masterful Elephant. To Van Sant, teenagers occupy a kind of dream state: They are slow to wake, rouse and react. But though they appear to be detached, they are just processing. Everything happens beneath the surface, hidden deeply enough to make us think they don't care.
Like Larry Clark, Van Sant craves not only the point of view of teenagers, but immersion in their world. It's a world where adulthood is the exotic mystery. "Grown-ups do stuff for money," one of Alex's friends advises, sounding like he is describing the mating habits of pygmy goats.
Van Sant is beholden to a teenage methodology in other ways, too. He culled his teenage cast from MySpace and the source material for the film comes from Young Adult writer Blake Nelson's novel of the same name. Van Sant does his best to honor teenage experience in dialogue ("mayo's sick") and dress, but mostly in mood and rhythm. In Van Sant's appraisal of the Teen Age, the discovery of a new skate park produces a bigger blip on Alex's consciousness than the classmate hauled away in handcuffs outside the cafeteria window in the middle of the school day.
Though Paranoid Park never achieves the poetic timbre of Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho or Elephant, it is undeniably part of a whole. He aims to capture the floating, random, free-associative pitch of teenage life. In his rhythms he has succeeded, even if the overall impression feels frustratingly unfocused, even inconsequential.
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