Paranoid Park is the third installment in what might be called Gus Van Sant’s trilogy of Cool Beautiful Disaffected Youth Who Commit Random Acts of Violence. In Elephant (2003), the camera glided and spun like a ghost voyeur through the halls of a high school, fixating on two Columbine-like killers the film was too hip to try to make sense of; in Last Days (2005), the camera hung back like a frozen voyeur, staring at a Cobain-like suicidal rock star the movie was too hip to try to make sense of. At first, Paranoid Park looks like more of the same. It glories in the detachment of Alex (Gabe Nevins), an angel-faced, tousle-haired skate punk who is drawn, like James Dean to a midnight road race, into Paranoid Park, a graffiti-splattered Portland, Ore., skate facility built into the concrete underbelly of a bridge. It’s there that the ”bad” kids hang out, the stoners, tough loners, and sociopaths who, in Van Sant’s romantic-outlaw view, are truly free.
But Paranoid Park, unlike the trendily benumbed Elephant or Last Days, turns out to be a humane exploration of the costs of freedom. Alex, lost in his unruly new skate world (he ”flies,” in slo-mo, up the basin walls), lands in the middle of a bloody tragedy — and though it isn’t his fault, exactly, the event haunts and torments him, stirring him out of his anomie. Paranoid Park has the slightly glum insularity of minimalist fiction, but it’s the first of Van Sant’s blitzed-generation films in which a young man wakes up instead of shutting down. B+