Director Gus Van Sant's latest film, is motion-filled. Skateboarders glide over the surface of their playground, Paranoid Park, from which the film gets its name. Trains roll down the track, the clicking iron wheels echoing the sounds of the skateboards. Beach grass sways in the wind. In other scenes, bicycles and cars join the movement. Even the lives of the alienated teenagers in this dreamy fatalistic film are in motion as they negotiate the difficult terrain of high school.
Although this is a work of fiction, the setting is an actual skateboard park located under the east side of the Burnside Bridge, which crosses the Willamette River. The bridge marks the absolute center of Portland and teenage skateboarders see Paranoid Park as the center of their lives. They drift there in the evenings and on weekends, enjoying the camaraderie of other skateboarders.
The story centers on Alex (Gabe Nevins), a troubled teenager whose parents are getting divorced. Alex is just serving his time in high school, moving through it as many do, relatively unnoticed in that vast, unimpressive territory between gifted and problem-causing. He's drawn to Paranoid Park and its mix of—as Alex describes them—"train hoppers," "guitar punks," "skate drunks," and other "throw-away kids." Unfortunately, these youths are about to become noticed as Alex and other skateboarders become possible suspects in the death of a railroad security guard whose body is found on the tracks.
There is a logical sequence of events in Alex's life, but the scenes in the film ricochet lazily from one event to another without regard for chronological order. Alex tells and writes his story, relating the troubling events in his life. He's fascinated by the lost and disenchanted kids at the skateboard park because he's becoming one of them.
Van Sant (Good Will Hunting, My Own Private Idaho, Elephant) employed mostly inexperienced teenage actors to fill the roles in Paranoid Park and they deliver interesting performances. Nevins has a cool and disconnected but authentic presentation on the screen. With his naive and angelic appearance, he looks and acts exactly like what he is, a real teenager. His performance lacks the confidence of an experienced actor, but it fits in the story of a teenager trying to find his way around a dangerous, mysterious and confusing world. Jared (Jake Miller), Alex's best friend, is older and less introspective but, unlike Alex and most of his skateboarding friends, is actually planning for life after high school. Macy (Lauren McKinney), slides into Alex's life and threatens his relationship with his longtime girlfriend, Jennifer (Taylor Momsen). Her performance as the controlling, irritating girlfriend who wants all of Alex's time and attention is credible.
Another memorable performance is by Dillon Hines who plays Henry, Alex's little brother. The boys' father spends most of his time living at a distant beach house. Alex accepts the impending family breakup almost nonchalantly, as if it were as inevitable as nightfall, but 13-year-old Henry is in serious emotional distress. He has trouble keeping food down and his voice has a high-pitched and heart-wrenching tone to it, as if the knowledge that his family is self-destructing will leave him alone and homeless.
Detective Richard Lu (Daniel Liu) searches for evidence in the death of the guard and is repeatedly questioning the skateboarders. Lu acts like a high school counselor more than an investigator and does so to try to gain the confidence of the skateboarders and obtain knowledge about the guard's death.
Van Sant shows considerable skill in directing these young actors and producing a film as polished as Paranoid Park. One very brief, unnecessarily gruesome and easily avoidable scene earned this film its R rating, which unfortunately makes it less accessible to many of the teenagers who would most identify with the characters. And, if not for the music soundtrack, Paranoid Park would be a far weaker cinematic experience. Van Sant compiled an eclectic collection of musical numbers to create a soundtrack that has a strangely ethereal and uplifting effect and is actually superior to the visual dimension of the movie. The music greatly enhances the impact of this beautiful, mesmerizing film that offers a window into the world of young skateboarders in Portland, Ore.