Teenage wasteland

Gus Van Sant's tilted view of adolescence, where estrangement is everyday

When did Gus Van Sant stop making movies anyone wants to see? OK, maybe film diehards will trudge to the theater for his latest cinematic doodles, but the talented director's career has followed a strange and mostly disappointing trajectory. From the inspired (Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho, To Die For) to the commercial (Good Will Hunting, Finding Forrester) to the indulgent (Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, Psycho) no one could have predicted that the writer-director would attempt to emulate the unhinged bleakness of Brit filmmaker Alan Clarke (Made in Britain, Road, Elephant).

Much like Van Sant's last few films, it's tempting to say Paranoid Park flirts with self-indulgent and pretentiously artful irrelevance. But that'd be a disservice to the poignant sense of guilt and alienation he so brilliantly captures in this tale of a numbed-to-the-world teen who may have caused the grisly death of a rail yard security guard.

Adapting Blake Nelson's novel into a purposely shapeless portrait of disaffection, Paranoid Park is controlled and lyrical. More than just another it-sucks-to-be-a-teen flick, Van Sant presents a tilted view of adolescence, where estrangement is everyday, skateboarding is a kind of lower-class reverie, and guilt's a cancer that eats at everything.

The filmmaker, now in his 50s, is clearly mesmerized by the rhythms, lifestyles and awkward longings of teenagers. The movie's cast of young, unprofessional actors is startlingly authentic; these kids wear suspicions and loneliness on their sleeves. Simultaneously empathetic and creepy, Van Sant — like the film's police detective (the terrific Daniel Liu) — never judges Alex (Gabe Nevins), the teen protagonist, instead seeking to understand his tortured state of mind.

Like Van Sant's Elephant, the director's indie-meditation on Columbine, Van Sant fractures the narrative, filling this tale of ordinary tragedy with Rashomon-style flashbacks and voiceovers. Using grainy kaleidoscope images rendered in Super 8, he gives us fleeting clues as to Alex's emotional landscape.

Adult audiences will probably find Paranoid Park confounding and cryptic. But those willing to approach it with patience may discover that the adolescent experience isn't that far from our own: Guilt is crippling, accepting responsibility is hard, and achieving real trust is nearly impossible.

Showing at the Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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