No matter how bad your family life was, these guys had it much worse," observes Alex (Gabe Nevins). He's almost right: The restless natives of the skateboard park where he hangs out are all but feral-they have no parents, no homes-and they live at the park by themselves, or with each other, which, as screenwriter/director Gus Van Sant observes in his new film Paranoid Park, amounts to the same thing.
Alex is a shaggy blond Portland sk8erboi with an unblinking, almost bovine cast to his 16-year-old face, belying the fear that is coming to a slow boil behind his eyes. The story Alex narrates skips around ("I didn't do very well in creative writing," he admits), but the thrust of it is this: Accidentally, he killed someone.
His protagonist's admission notwithstanding, Van Sant must have done extremely well in creative writing. Manslaughter is the centerpiece of Paranoid Park (along with the raw, if well-observed, language, it's also the reason for the R rating-there's one awful shot of the dying man, bifurcated by a train), but it's only the jumping-off point for the filmmaker's observations about what happens when a child has to find his way in the world alone.
The most telling scene is Alex's one and only interaction with his father, who is so insubstantial that Van Sant shoots him as blurry background to Alex's profile for several minutes. Until the camera reluctantly brings him into focus, we know two things about Dad, who "won't be coming by here anymore": He cares so little about Alex that he comforts his son with a half-hearted "if there's anything I can do," and he has tattoos. When Alex reels in the aftermath of the accident, it's no wonder he doesn't tell anyone.
Like all kids, you learn about Alex by watching him play. Paranoid Park is full of loving slo-mo shots of skateboarders sailing through the air, doing complicated tricks, falling over, and hopping right back up. Elsewhere, Alex and his friends function by imitating adults (Alex's girlfriend Jennifer demands that he take her virginity and phones a girlfriend immediately afterwards, giggling that "it was aMAZing"), but Alex seems to long for authenticity, which draws him to the skateboard park.
Van Sant's illustration of the complicated dynamic of inattention and loneliness explains why the park is such an object of fascination for the kids, some of whom appear to have just wandered away from their homes five, 10, 15 years ago and exist in a state of eternal adolescence, growing older but never aging. It's a kind of community, but it's also a trap that children have accidentally made for themselves.