What’s exciting about Gus Van Sant’s upcoming production of “Milk” isn’t just that it’s a long-overdue film about Harvey Milk and the crucial role he played in the creation of the gay rights movement in this country. Another reason to look forward to this next movie is that Van Sant will, for the first time in several years, be making a movie about grown-ups and not about skinny, hairless teen boys (or adults who look like same).
Van Sant’s cinematic eye has always unabashedly been focused on slender, sexually ambiguous adolescents, and his adoration of uncommunicative kids with limited vocabularies and awesome hair is beginning to wear a little thin.
With his Columbine contemplation “Elephant,” Van Sant’s seemingly random narrative style actually led somewhere, with a jolting climax that seemed inevitable in retrospect. But “Last Days” meandered hopelessly, having nothing to say to an audience that didn’t already go in armed with some kind of knowledge, opinion, or baggage about Kurt Cobain.
Which brings us to his latest opus, “Paranoid Park,” about a teenage skater boy in Portland, Ore., who gets caught up in a murder investigation.
Even though Max (Gabe Nevins) is coping with his parents’ divorce, his life seems fairly safe and ordinary: he goes to a run-of-the-mill high school with a clique of fellow sullen skaters; he’s got a cheerleader girlfriend (Taylor Momsen’s teen sex bomb takes her about as far away from playing Cindy Lou Who in “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” as possible) who’s more interested in their relationship than Max is; and two parents who, whatever their problems with each other, both assure their son that they love him and that they’re there for him.
So it’s not like Max has any personal demons — or, apparently, much of a personality at all — when he finds himself involved in the search for the murderer of a security guard at a railroad yard that’s adjacent to the skate park that gives the film its title.
Over the course of the film, we’re told the story of that fateful night numerous times, with various alibis, because Max is writing it all down in a letter to himself, getting closer to the truth each time. (Thankfully, “Paranoid Park” doesn’t overdo the multiple-retelling gimmick that “Vantage Point” so recently ground into the dirt, but it’s not that much more interesting here than it was previously.)
There’s one saving grace to “Paranoid Park,” and that’s the exquisite cinematography of Christopher Doyle and Rain Kathy Li. Whether shooting great movies like “2046” and “The Quiet American” or duds like “Lady in the Water” and Van Sant’s misbegotten “Psycho” remake, Doyle shows time and again that he’s one of the greatest directors of photography on the planet right now. And true to form, “Paranoid Park” is always a joy to look at, even when the performances and the script give you nothing to cling to or care about.
Van Sant, at his best, is one of his generation’s most exciting filmmakers. And if getting a bagatelle like “Paranoid Park” off his chest every few years allows him to achieve greatness later, then so be it. But if you’re not a die-hard fan of the director, this won’t be the movie to convince you otherwise.