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Teen angst revisited

Gus Van Sant’s new flick opens Friday at The Grand

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Gus Van Sant has a thing for troubled youth. In ‘Elephant’ he weaves together the perspectives of several students whose lives culminate in a tragic shooting at their high school. And his Oscar-winning ‘Good Will Hunting’ has a young(er) Matt Damon tormented by the demands of his genius and a proclivity for violence. The director once again aims his camera on teens in trouble in his newest feature Paranoid Park, but this time he misfires. With nothing new or substantial to add to its subgenre, the movie lazily resorts to tired adolescent angst clichés.

Written by Van Sant and based on Blake Nelson’s novel, the story’s anti-hero is Alex, a high school skater living the typical alienated existence in dreary Portland, Ore. His self-absorbed parents, naturally on the verge of divorce, hover around the periphery of their son’s consciousness. The camera visualizes this psychological condition — Van Sant none-too-subtly constructs his shots so that mom and dad appear distant, indistinct, their faces hidden out of frame or obscured by a shallow focus. When not at home, Alex floats in and out of shallow relationships with peers while staving off his persistent girlfriend Jennifer (Taylor Momsen). Viewers will have seen these uninspiring images of disillusioned suburbia so many times before.

The story improves slightly when it is suddenly revealed that a murder took place nearby a skate park that Alex recently visited. The first half of Paranoid Park becomes a sort of engrossing whodunit that has Alex possibly implicated in the brutal crime. Editing his own film, Van Sant teases out the suspense by liberally reordering the narrative chain of events. This technique, however, might also add to a viewer’s confusion. Several times I found myself wondering, “Haven’t I already seen this part?”

The truth is revealed halfway through, and from then on Paranoid Park meanders in circles. The Kubrickian death scene, played out in slow-motion while Beethoven swells, blends the balletic with the horrific. Despite this and other small flourishes, Van Sant’s production comes across as very amateurish. Cinematographer Christopher Doyle (who also shot the excellent Asian import Chungking Express) here fails to match the vibrancy and freshness in his earlier work. The soundtrack consists of an odd grab bag running the gamut from heavy metal to bluegrass. An almost conscious effort to dumb down its talent pervades all of Paranoid Park. Ultimately the film’s anesthetized style succeeds only in mimicking the blandness of its soft-spoken protagonist. Neither Alex nor Van Sant find beauty among tragedy’s ruins.

[The Grand Cinema, Friday, May 2-Thursday, May 8, 4:50 and 9 p.m., $4.50-$8, 606 Fawcett Ave., Tacoma, 253.593.4474]

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