Gus Van Sant's Compassion for Troubled Kids

By Atkinson, Roland | Clinical Psychiatry News, March 2008 | Go to article overview

Gus Van Sant's Compassion for Troubled Kids


Atkinson, Roland, Clinical Psychiatry News


There is a world-class skateboard park tucked beneath the east end of the Burnside Bridge in Portland, Ore., that was built clandestinely by skateboarders and subsequently legalized by the city as the Burnside Skatepark. I've been there more than once and can attest that the talent on display is amazing. You've got to be good to want to skate there, where reputation and skill are always on the line. This place is also the principal filming location for "Paranoid Park," Portlander Gus Van Sant's latest film, a meditation on the dark side of adolescent experience, which opens in theaters this month.

The story, based on a 2006 novel of the same name by Portland native Blake Nelson, is presented in a quiet, often shadowy, almost lyrical manner, very much in the style of the Cannes Palme d'Or winning "Elephant," Van Sant's last film about troubled teenagers, which was based on the story of the Columbine (Colo.) High School killings.

A security guard at a train yard not far from the Skatepark turns up dead--his body severed in half to be precise--after being run down by a train. According to a detective on the case, Richard Lu (Daniel Liu, in a superb first-time film performance), DNA evidence links the death to a skateboard found in the Willamette River nearby. Because of this evidence, Detective Lu questions several boys known to skate at the park, including the protagonist in this film, Alex (Gabe Nevins, who also performs outstandingly in his first film role).

Alex's Unusual Behavior

Alex is a humorless kid around age 16. Some critics have said that, as an amateur, Nevins lacks expressiveness in this role, but I think he is spot-on in portraying his character as a youngster who is significantly depressed. Alex's parents are separated and headed for divorce. His mother goes off to Las Vegas now and again, and we never see her. Though his father tries to remain connected to Alex, he's usually on his own, and his 13-year-old kid brother seems to be his only reliable source of support in the family.

Alex has friends, but his introverted moroseness permeates all of his interactions. We sense early on that he is preoccupied about something, too much so to pursue his studies or his social ties with any zest. At one point he tells a sort of girlfriend that, "... something happened to me on some other level than daily events."

Is Alex reacting to the dissolution of his family? Social withdrawal, depressed mood, and flagging schoolwork are typical signs of clinically significant depression in adolescents, and breakup of the parents' marriage can surely trigger such a response in kids. Is he suffering through the prodrome of a psychotic illness? We know that similar signs, obsessive journaling, and a pervasive sense of estrangement from ordinary reality that heralds the eventual onset of a schizophrenic illness, can go on for weeks or months. Does Alex know something he's not able to discuss with others? Did he witness something having to do with the guard's demise, something he can only write about in his journal?

Sights and Sounds

The eerie sense of paranoia that pervades this film is achieved in part by under-lighting many scenes, producing ambiguous, murky effects (as was done in the "delusional" sequences featuring Ed Harris in "A Beautiful Mind," and in David Cronenberg's film "Spider," about a man with worsening schizophrenia).

Even more effective is the use throughout the film of ominous, discordant background sounds and murmured, indistinct voices, not unlike the quality of auditory illusions and hallucinations commonly described by persons with schizophrenia or paranoid psychosis, a technique also used by Lodge Kerrigan in his film about a man with schizophrenia who has just been released from the hospital, "Clean, Shaven."

There is also fascinating slow-motion footage of skateboarders doing their thing. The action shots here are far better than those in Stacy Peralta's disappointing skateboard documentary, "Dogtown and Z-Boys.

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