Film Reviews

Paranoid Park Gus Van Sant

Rating - 10/10

It’s not long into Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park that our protagonist tells us, “I’m not that good at creative writing.” Seems about par for the course in terms of films aimed at teens: monotonous, tonally deaf, and irreverent could be terms to describe what amounts to little creativity or insight to "teens" (the fluffy Juno included). And yet, none of these terms come close to describing the world created within Paranoid Park, an almost claustrophobic slice-of-life, coming-of-age story that plays out like a snapshot, or, more appropriately, the journal entries of a teenager in over his head.

As if constructed by its introverted lead, Paranoid Park is a film stuck out of time. It begins somewhere at the end, as Alex (Gabe Nevins) recollects the weeks leading up to this moment through nondescript journal entries. There’s Alex and his overbearing girlfriend; there’s Alex and his skater buddies; and there’s Alex staring down the other end of a bloody skateboard. It’s here that Paranoid Park finds its basis for a plot, in the accidental murder of a security guard on a train tracks not far from the park itself. Of course there’s an investigation by police, but Alex isn’t a suspect; what Paranoid Park is really about is the unraveling psyche of a teenager caught in the middle of a battle he can’t even fathom, and which he seems at odds to win.

In bringing Alex’s story to life, Van Sant has broken down the original, linear narrative of its source novel and based progression instead on Alex’s conscious. Paranoid Park is told through slow motion Super-8 and a left-of-center sound design that translates emotions through overstatements, an odd stylistic approach that not only works, but betters the vision altogether. With a score that ranges anywhere from Nino Rota to Elliott Smith, Paranoid Park’s sound design plays like the looming threat of disaster in the face of the otherwise quaint interactions between Alex and his friends, all of whom seem oblivious to sounds and images Alex can’t shake.

Like Van Sant’s own Elephant (part of the “Death Trilogy,” which also includes Gerry and Last Days), Paranoid Park is interested in interactions and causes just as much as the effects. But instead of that film’s long, unnerving tracking shots, Paranoid Park is without a steady basis. Tracking shots through hallways become unhurried, slow motion endeavors; skaters become floating bodies over concrete, swiftly zooming in and out of frame with rough elegance. When Alex and his sort-of girlfriend finally “do it,” the scene is the juxtaposition of the two lovers: her satisfied, determined face hidden behind her hair, and his bored, uncommitted stare. It’s in scenes like these that Van Sant hits the mark almost entirely, finding a way to allow Alex, a character that doesn’t do a lot and says even less, to speak multitudes.

And in his ultimate quest for realism, Van Sant decided to cast Paranoid Park through MySpace. While this means that much of the film’s interactions are stilted, the awkwardness in which the characters are presented fits perfectly into the scope of the film. As if unscripted, Paranoid Park instead seems the product of Van Sant’s intrusion on the life of a shy Portland teen, as if he had simply set up camp in a coffee shop and told everyone to act natural. This is best represented in the unobtrusive budding romance between Alex and friend, Macy (Lauren McKinney). Through her talks about the war in Iraq and her genuine advice that problems here-and-now mean just as much as ones halfway around the world, Macy is solid ground for Alex to navigate, and Van Sant never spells out just what one means to the other.

Ultimately, the true emotional core to Paranoid Park is the moral dilemma Alex finds himself in. He has done something disastrously wrong, and without ever taking sides, Van Sant simply lets us decide for ourselves the road ahead for Alex. Will he ever find redemption, or will the burden of what was intended to be a simple night out grab a hold of Alex and tear him apart? In the wake of watching his parents’ impending divorce, coupled with the pains of adolescence, Alex doesn’t get concrete answers, and Van Sant is careful not to give any. Frustrating as it may be, and maybe because of it, the beautifully understated Paranoid Park makes a big, bold, and resounding statement about the fragility of life and what it means to be a teen living in it.