Dir. Gus Van Sant
(R) ★ ★ ★

There are a lot of empty spaces in Paranoid Park. Writer-director Gus Van Sant favors slow-motion, hanging moments, and silences. He is less concerned with plot than with delving into the internal life of his main character, Alex (Gabe Nevins, one of the film’s many debut actors). The film is told from Alex’s point of view, but few films are as effective at expressing a character’s psyche from the inside out.

Alex tells his own story. He is a teenager with a passion for skateboarding, though by his own admission he is not very good, certainly not as good as the tougher, hard-living kids who frequent the East Side Skate Park, known as Paranoid Park to those who go there. One night, he accidentally kills a security guard. As he tells the story, he dances around this event, not to bury the lead but out of fear of reliving the trauma. The film doubles back, jumps ahead, repeats scenes. It’s an unfocused narrative, but it’s a focused lack of focus. It unfolds as a confused teenager might tell it, and Van Sant stays true to Alex’s voice.

There are great scenes along the way in which Van Sant gets to the heart of Alex’s crisis. An early scene, which takes place after the event, features Alex being informally interviewed by Detective Richard Lu (Daniel Liu). In a long, unbroken shot, the camera very slowly pushes in on Alex as he answers questions. We don’t know how much the detective knows, and Alex’s demeanor is steady, but the push-in expresses his mounting anxiety, his feeling of being closed in upon.

A later scene is of Alex taking a shower immediately after the accident. In a few static shots in extreme closeup, we see his head downcast, and then sinking out of the frame. Dissonant tones on the soundtrack and the rushing water combine to express Alex’s psychological and emotional distress. These few wordless shots speak volumes about Alex’s fear and guilt.

There is a perceptiveness about the film. Alex’s parents are in the midst of a divorce, and their combined handful of brief scenes give us a sense of the family relationships: the father, a tattoo-covered bad-boy in appearance, expresses guilt and affection for his son, and the mother, who feebly inquires about her son’s activities, seems concerned but disconnected. In a film told so fully from Alex’s point of view, the minimal presence of his parents is itself telling; though well meaning, their separation has caused them both to withdraw from their son’s life.

However, Van Sant’s style can be as much a liability as an asset. A listlessness sets in. At times the deliberateness of the film’s pace turns into sluggishness. There are long slow-motion sequences of skateboarding, dreamy in their effect, but excessive in their duration. They seem to represent a kind of respite for Alex away from the reality of his circumstances, but they linger, and the mind wanders restlessly.

We don’t expect a tidy resolution to come from this material, but we hope for a more satisfying one than Paranoid Park offers; the open ending is so open, it’s barely an ending. I reacted to it with a shrug and wondered where Van Sant had hoped to take me, and where he thought he had arrived.

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