When a teenage skateboarder named Alex (Gabe Nevins) accidentally kills a security guard, he can barely register any emotion. A child of moderate privilege, Alex goes to school, has a girlfriend, eats junk food … and is almost as much of a zombie as anything George A. Romero has ever conjured up. Only less appealing.
Paranoid Park is a grim, tedious and ultimately empty film from Oregon icon Gus Van Sant. Van Sant loves Alex, the camera barely leaving his angelic face, the rest of the world either blurred or blocked out entirely.
Alex spends a Saturday night alone, off to “skate with the hardcore freaks” in Paranoid Park. On a whim, he decides to join one of the master skateboarders for a quick ride on a freight train to a place where they can score some beer. But a security guard pursues the boys, and Alex takes a whack at the guy with his board, accidentally sending the poor man into the path of an oncoming train.
Paranoid Park is gorgeous but vacant. Shot by famed cinematographer Christopher Doyle, the film’s every frame is a sumptuous feast of color and slo-mo. Couple this with its odd musical choices (including clips from Nino Rota’s score for Juliet of the Spirits), and it becomes obvious that this is the world as Alex sees it — disjointed, distant, empty, each adult a ghostly blur.
But remove this aural and visual veneer and Alex is revealed to be a cipher — he doesn’t laugh, doesn’t enjoy sex, doesn’t dig music, and claims to love to skate but is never actually seen skating, one of many instances where things are said as opposed to explored on screen. Who is he? Why should we care more for him than the man who was cut in half on the tracks?
Other troubles abound. Van Sant has never been a great director of women, and here he’s reduced the three female characters to oddball caricatures, from the passive-aggressive mother to the shrill cheerleading girlfriend with the cell phone clamped to the side of her head to the punk Angel, utterly devoid of personality. Then again, no one else in the movie is anything more than a disembodied voice. Other, less arty films have said volumes more about teenagers, from Rebel Without a Cause to the latest Harry Potter.
This article originally appeared in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.