BY NICK FEITEL | Gus Van Sant has charted an interesting path in his forays in cinema and, for much of it, one that must be admired. A pioneer of New Queer Cinema with his beautifully shot mini-pic “Mala Noche,” he went on to grab considerable attention with the independent films “Drugstore Cowboy” and, most notably, “My Own Private Idaho.”
In all three films, Van Sant follows losers and outcasts in society, victims of discrimination or willful exiles, through their idiosyncratic worlds. At a time when blockbusters were coming to rule, he was notable for keeping his pictures small, diving deeper into his characters' minds with each passing film.
A skateboarder angsts, sulks, and tries to avoid losing his virginity.
It is both understandable and lamentable that Van Sant fell for Matt Damon and Ben Affleck's silly-bordering-on-stupid screenplay for “Good Will Hunting.” Both Van Sant's greatest success financially and his greatest failure artistically, “Good Will Hunting” mined the pathos the director had previously identified in a shy gay boy and a highway robber in the service of pretty-boy poseurs. And Hollywood and the American public bit because Matt and Ben were a lot easier to identify with, and still able to hold onto the peculiarity of Van Sant's worldview.
The love of beauty, of adolescence, of “cool” that surfaced in “Good Will” has plagued Van Sant's films ever since. To wit – the unspectacular “Finding Forrester” and “Last Days.” Occasionally, the director is able to break through to reclaim his heritage as a documenter of the outside with a powerful film like “Elephant.” However, with his newest film, “Paranoid Park,” he has once again mistaken beauty for truth and achieved neither.
“Paranoid Park” takes place in Portland, Oregon, and follows the world of those oh-so-punk, shaggy skateboarders who hang out there. Alex (Gabe Nevins) is a particularly angst-ridden16-year-old boarder who sulks, occasionally hooks up with girls, and mostly tries to shirk guilt. There's a murder mystery as a security guard for the park has been run down and Alex, for some reason, is a suspect. But, of course, since Alex is a grungy high-school student, why worry about the murder when we can watch him avoid trying to lose his virginity?
The one demanding a mutual exchange of innocence is Alex's girlfriend Jennifer (Taylor Momsen), who elsewhere appears in the East Side “O.C.” rip-off “Gossip Girl.” Here, she is just as unconvincing, and, of course, every bit as bitchy.
As this film meanders on, we are given less and less plot, instead invited to cruise along with Alex's life. In “Elephant,” this sort cinema-vérité was effective, because in stellar Hitchcockian style, Van Sant placed two guys the audience was casually watching on a sure path to killing everyone else. Here, perhaps despite our most fervent wishes, the teens stay alive and cloying to the bitter end.
We watch these youth in both Christopher Doyle's glamorous 35-milimeter and the grittier Super 8 of the other cinematographer, Rain Kathy Li. The world of these teens proves unequal to either treatment.
Van Sant is not wrong to aim at the YouTube generation. After all, he fancies himself a chronicler of youth, an idea that surely grows more attractive to him the older he gets. The problem is he ignores what is substantive about today's youth in favor of what is easy.
“Paranoid Park” might not have been so hard to swallow if it didn't feel like an unintentional rehashing of the MySpace/YouTube/Facebook façade of today's culture, rather than an effort to capture the reality of these kids' lives. Van Sant had it in him once to tell people's stories. Now it seems he is unable to see the youth of today, blinded by their profile pictures.