On one side of the coin, there's a girl like Juno. Sure, she made a mistake. But she's so bright and so articulate and her parents are so there for her that, well, you know, she'll be fine.
The flip side is Alex (Gabe Nevins), and no, he's not a slacker or a loser. He's just not all right. He has friends, but not too many. He has a girlfriend, although he liked her better before she wanted to have sex and get "all serious." His parents are separated, his tattooed father breezes in and out of his life, and his 13-year-old kid brother can't keep dinner down because of the anxiety. Still, Alex sees divorce as an everyday thing, trivial compared to more important issues, like the war in Iraq, or starving children in Africa.
That may sound like a cliché, but when Alex says it in Gus Van Sant's Paranoid Park, you sense that he's trying to mean it: If he's not ready to save the world, at least he realizes there's a world that needs to be saved. "The little problems, they're stupid," he says. "I just feel like there's something outside of normal life."
Alex discovered this because of Paranoid Park, a place where skateboarders go to ride. Some are kids like Alex, but most are "train hoppers, guitar punks, skate drunks, throwaway kids: No matter how bad your family life was, these guys had it much worse." Until, that is, Alex pursues his dream of hopping a train and accidentally causes the death of a security guard, which draws the police to his school.
Van Sant (Elephant, Good Will Hunting) often explores the lives of fringe young men in their teens and 20s, and he's rarely done it as effectively as he does in Paranoid Park. He's a maddeningly indulgent director, especially when he breaks faith with his characters. This time, perhaps because he's working from a novel (by Blake Nelson), he gets it right: You grieve for Alex because he's a decent kid who just needs a mentor to bring out his strengths. He'll never be a rocket scientist, but he needn't be another lost boy.
Van Sant lays his opening titles over a long shot of a bridge across a river. You can see the cars moving in the distance at high speed (a special effect). Then, later, the skateboarders ride in slow motion, a choice that's more than an elegiac cliché: Van Sant seems to want to contrast the hasty indifference of adult life with the more contemplative world of teen-agers.
After the security guard's death, Alex records his thoughts in a notebook and struggles with the moral implications of causing a man's death. We eventually learn why he's writing, but his particular audience and purpose don't matter: Once again Van Sant takes us inside a young man's thoughts, and while they are not as crisp as Juno's, they're worth attending.
Starts Fri., March 28. Regent Square
- Life upside down: Gabe Nevins portrays lost skater Alex