Written and Directed by Gus Van Sant
Starring Gabe Nevins and Taylor Momsen
Now Playing in Limited Release
Few films (that I’ve seen, at least) achieve what Gus Van Sant’s latest work, “Paranoid Park,” accomplishes with such elegance and ease. If the disjointed, hand-wound montage of San Francisco traffic in the opening scene isn’t enough to foreshadow the lack of order and peace in our hero’s young teenage life, then certainly it’s the haunting soundtrack. Or, you also have the eerie shift in lighting when Alex (Gabe Nevins), America’s John Doe of troubled teens, escapes to the seashore to write an epic letter. Then you consider the fact that the majority of the scenes shift in and out of focus, sometimes barely giving the viewer any clue as to where the scene is actually taking place. This is where the success of “Paranoid Park” triumphs beyond other films about the difficulty being a teenager: it is as though all the elements (artistic and practical) conspire together to make the viewer feel like Alex. We truly see and live as Alex is seeing and living.
Alex is completely immersed in skateboarding and its culture. Though he’s admittedly mediocre, his thoughts are dominated by visions and dreams of skating. Van Sant’s clever insertion of home-made skating videos (replete with grainy, fish-eye perspective) throughout the film echoes Alex’s periodic distraction. These vignettes, which occur a handful of times between every few scenes, give depth and context to Alex’s obsession while locking the viewer into nostalgia for the freedom and excitement of skating.
Normalcy seems to dictate Alex’s life: beyond his love for his skateboard he has his friend Jared, a girlfriend (played by the quintessential valley girl Taylor Momsen), and lives with his single mother (a situation which, unfortunately, seems more normal these days). Drama arises when Alex and Jared decide to visit Paranoid Park, an epicenter for teenage subculture. Alex hops a train with a stranger, blindly following him with no inhibition. The week after their visit, Alex and all the skateboarders at his school become implicated in the case of a murder which took place near the park that weekend.
Not only is Alex already dealing with the pain of his separated parents, but he’s now in the middle of dealing with an unfriendly, irksome detective. The scenes replay to the viewer as they would replay in Alex’s mind. The only chronology here is that of Alex’s apprehension – it’s very clear who committed the murder, but this is not a detective film. This is a film about a teen coping with responsibility and self-identity.
Life drives forward and Alex becomes emptier as time passes. Color fades from Alex’s eyes as his girlfriend attempts to be intimate. After talking to his friend Macy, the only person at school it seems who will sit down to listen to Alex, he is convinced that the only way to purge his feeling is to write it down in a letter. The entirety of the narration of this film is Alex’s dreadful composition of this letter. Each scene is accompanied by another piece of the story, spoken with almost no affect. Alex fails to inflect words or indicate one end of a thought and the beginning of another. The pathos is haunting, yet strikingly real. Alex is already entangled in a web of lies between his mother and his girlfriend when his father seems to be moving out of the house. In a sedated, business-like conversation, his father parts with just as little affect as Alex’s droning voice-overs.
The combination of Alex’s loneliness, paranoia, innocence, and longing are so tangible that they help launch this film forward from beginning to end. The aforementioned cinematography effects (thanks to Christopher Doyle) complete this trajectory and solidify an honest picture of what it is like to be in Alex’s situation. “Paranoid Park” reminds the viewer that film doesn’t need an agenda to re-enact reality.