Looking not quite big enough to reach the pedals, Gabe Nevins sits behind the wheels of a car early in Paranoid Park. Happily cruising through a Portland night, he lets the music on the radio wash over him, changing his expression and demeanor as the styles shift from hip-hop to rock to country. He's young, free, and licensed, and though he has his share of problems—his parents' divorce foremost among them—life has yet to pen him in. Flash to another scene: Nevins walks in slow motion through his high school, accompanied by the minor-key melancholy of Elliott Smith's "Angeles." Though Gus Van Sant's elliptical approach to the story has yet to reveal exactly why, it's clear from the look of dark reverie on Nevins' face that his life has found its unhappy soundtrack.
Based on Blake Nelson's young-adult novel, Paranoid Park explores how Nevins' character gets from one point to the other, and the question of whether what's brought him there will ever let him leave. Using Nevins' confessional letter to an unknown recipient as a framing device, Van Sant jumps around in chronology, first showing his protagonist's reluctance to visit the quasi-legal, fringe-character-populated skate park that gives the film its title, then showing him being called out of class for police questioning. It takes the film a while to reveal the specifics of what happened in between, but it isn't hard to fill in some of the blanks.
Nevins' girlfriend (Gossip Girl's Taylor Momsen, one of the few professional actors in a cast recruited partly from Portland-area MySpace profiles) pressures him into having sex for the first time, failing to notice his reluctance to lose any more of his innocence. Her narcissism only partly explains the oversight. Nevins plays a character who reveals no more of himself than he has to. Talking to a detective (Daniel Liu), he remains cool and prepared. Hanging out with a pal (Lauren McKinney) who shows the same intensity in her concern for his well-being as in her dislike for the war in Iraq, he reveals just enough for her to see he isn't doing well. Through simple observation, Van Sant quietly lets viewers understand Nevins and feel the full force of his distress. Keeping a respectful distance, the dreamily unsettling film—stunningly shot by cinematographers Christopher Doyle and Rain Kathy Li—follows Nevins from skate park to coffee shop to a home that doesn't really feel like home anymore, drifting along with him as he makes decisions that will shape the rest of his life, even if the present crisis passes. It's a film assembled from moments out of time, destined forever to weigh down the boy at their center.