LITTLE ROCK Gus Van Sant is a consistently interesting filmmaker, even when his projects test one's patience. I still haven't figured out the point of his shot-by-shot remake of Psycho (1998) and actively disliked Gerry (2002), his experiment in tedium. I thought he wasted his gifts in the facile Finding Forrester (2000) and what admiration I have for Last Days (2005), his drone poem to Kurt Cobain, is leavened by the sweet knowledge that I never have to watch it again.
On the other hand, I admire Good Will Hunting (1997) more now than when it won Oscars for Matt and Ben. I love his early movies Drugstore Cowboy (1989), My Own Private Idaho (1991) and especially the no-budget Mala Noche (1985). My favorite is 2003's Elephant (2003), a light-smeared beauty that takes potentially exploitative material - it was inspired by the 1999 Columbine massacre - and fashions a heartcrushing movie brimming with empathy and emotional intelligence.
Paranoid Park feels like a companion piece to Elephant as it reprises some of the same themes of teenage alienation and isolation and relies heavily on nonprofessional teenage actors to carry the film. Gabe Nevins, who portrays lead character Alex, had never acted before, and some of the film's high school students were found via auditions announced through Internet social networking Web sites. (Taylor Momsen, a 14-yearold who played Cindy Lou Who in 2000's How the Grinch Stole Christmas and stars in the television series Gossip Girl, is probably the most experienced actor in the cast.)
Set in grimy, rain-streaked Portland, Ore., the film is a visually inventive retelling of Blake Nelson's young adult novel of the same name, and it retains some ofthe earmarks of the genre - Alex and his friends don't seem that far removed from S.E. Hinton's Ponyboy and Soda Pop (or for that matter, from Walt and Johnny of Mala Noche).
To grow up, they assume, is tobe co-opted into a system where no one does anything but "for money." While they all seem to accept the inevitability of growing up, for the time being this desultory lot exists in a sensual limbo, content to receive what thrills may come, be they from flouting gravity, gobbled drugs or sex with cheerleader girlfriends (an experience that seems to annoy Alex - now he'll have to buy more condoms).
Disconnected from the world of adult concerns to the extent that he can't even muster an opinion on the war in Iraq, Alex seems like a typical middle-class child of divorce - he regards his mother with something like benign disdain. If anything, he may be a little gentler and more sensitive than his peers.
But he's party to an awful accident - and as a result must deal with a philosophical dilemma straight out of Camus.
Van Sant employs legendary cinematographer Christopher Doyle and his frequent collaborator Kathy Li (best known for their work with Wong Kar-wai) to create a fluid and visually arresting film stitched together from video, Super-8 and 35mm mediums, with lots of slow-motion sequences. At times the movie approaches a purely cinematic form as the simple narrative hitches and winds around itself and the soundtrack - a work of elegant recombination by sound designer Leslie Shatz - hums along, here and there punching through the naturalistic mumblecore dialogue with strains of Nina Rota and Beethoven.
Though less than 90 minutes long, Paranoid Park has an epic feel to it. No doubt some moviegoers will find it repetitious and portentous, but it eventually finds its languid rhythm - and an unsettling, beautiful confusion.
MovieStyle, Pages 41 on 04/11/2008