Conjuring a submersive audio/visual atmosphere that is neither dreamy nor exactly expressionistic, Paranoid Park nevertheless gets into the headspace of its young high school skater protagonist and treats with supreme respect what might be best described as a blown mind. Moving away from the marches towards death that characterized the narratives and dread-laden tone of his three previous films, Gus Van Sant uses Blake Nelson’s novel as a threadbare story of awakening—of a youth shaken into awareness of a world beyond his insular impressions. So it is entirely appropriate that Van Sant’s unbeatable collaborators—Christopher Doyle’s lushly subdued colors and slow motion camerawork supplemented by Rain Kathy Li’s 8mm skate footage, and Leslie Shatz’ eclectic sound design interweaving field recordings with spurting snippets of music—zero in on the solipsism of Alex (superb new comer Gabe Nevins) in a breathtaking, jumbled impressionism.
There is not so much a drama to the story—that of an accidental crime shuffled into the film chronology but infusing every frame of the film—as there is a hazy suspension of things, both a heightening of sensations and a stunned dulling, a distance from the surroundings that were normal and everyday before the crime. Although not death focused, like Gerry, Elephant, and Last Days before it, Van Sant’s latest is a film of limbo. No longer pointing towards the end of days, Paranoid Park nimbly catches Alex after his awakening but before any sort of realization, and as such he hangs in a suspension, and the film along with him, of uncertainly of memory and environment, of unreal glimpses of both abject alienation and of the sublime. With a designed musical soundtrack that changes tone and style almost instantly from grandiose orchestral arrangements to Elliot Smith pop laments, and a similar visual alternation between Doyle’s embalming compositions and the exhilaratingly grit and realism of Li’s skater cam, Paranoid Park is a wondrous cinematic transfusion of the mindstate of a destabilized youth, a shuffling, eerily smooth, dissynchronous impression of a clouded mind dazed by a terrifying, momentary glimpse of sin, of responsibility, and of a world outside himself.