Teen Stories: A Review of “Paranoid Park”

Charlie Bass Mar 12, 2008

Paranoid Park
Directed by Gus Van Sant
MK2 Productions, 2007

One of the great joys of filmgoing these last few years has been the career renaissance of Gus Van Sant, an indie auteur who went Hollywood in the 1990s with films like Good Will Hunting, only to return to low-budget filmmaking that’s actually more experimental than his early work. Inspired by the films of Hungarian long-take master Bela Tarr, in 2002 Van Sant made Gerry, a bizarre, divisive, semi-improvised story of two young guys (Matt Damon, Casey Affleck) who get lost wondering in the desert. Most thought the film a failed experiment or one-off stunt: a dull movie with dull characters where nothing much happens. Others, me included, considered it a time-bending, immersive mirage of a movie, alternately black comic and tragic, and totally unlike anything else in theaters at the time.

What almost no one expected was that, after this critical and commercial failure, Van Sant would continue down this same road, making increasingly experimental films about the lives of American youth. Elephant, Van Sant’s dreamy, unnerving take on the Columbine massacre, won the top prize at Cannes and his film inspired by Kurt Cobain’s suicide, Last Days, met similar acclaim despite its near-hallucinatory fixation on the internal experience of a single character. Each film in turn has reflected the increasing refinement of Van Sant’s craft, while simultaneously leading him further and further away from conventional film storytelling. Whatever the cause, Van Sant’s pursuit of a new kind of film language is virtually unprecedented amongst directors of his stature.

His latest film, Paranoid Park, finds Van Sant using these experimental techniques to put the audience squarely inside the head of its central character, Alex, a lonely skateboarding teen haunted by his involvement in the accidental death of a stranger. Adapting a fairly straightforward young adult novel by Blake Nelson, Van Sant abstracts the time frame of the story, presenting events not as they happened but as Alex chooses to retell them in his diary. It’s an ingenious structural choice, allowing for the various weights and pressures on Alex’s life (school, sex, older boys) to accumulate in a powerfully non-linear way. As the crime and its surrounding events are gradually revealed, Van Sant has Alex’s telling drift off into escapist skateboarding reveries (shot with a mix of styles and film stocks), as if the guilt and pressure is too much to bear. All the while, we hear Alex’s disaffected, broken voiceover (echoing Linda Manz in Days of Heaven) mixed with eliding snippets of contrasting music pieces (Beethoven, jazz, Nino Rota’s scores for Fellini, Elliot Smith) and isolated soundscapes. It’s a headphone movie, deeply interior and meditative, but, as if responding to those who felt locked out from the Cobain character in Last Days, fully engaged with Alex’s experience of the world.

Much of what makes the movie work so well is a credit to Van Sant’s choice of collaborators. As she’s done with his last few films, sound designer Leslie Shatz turns the film’s audio mix into a singular work of art, conveying information without ever straying from a finely tuned subjectivity. Collaborating for the first time with Van Sant, genius cinematographer Christopher Doyle (working with Kathy Li) captures beguiling skateboarding flights and the dense, atmospheric texture of rainy Portland with equal aplomb. First-timer Gabe Nevins has a natural inexpressiveness that illustrates Alex’s tendency to keep all his worry inside—cast locally via the film’s MySpace page, he’s as far from a teen TV star or child actor as one could get.

When the film ends on an unresolved note, it becomes clear that, in lesser hands, Alex’s story could have easily become an after-school special, instead of the lyrical, compassionate, untidy film Van Sant has fashioned. Here’s hoping he keeps making more films like this one and the three before it—gorgeous, challenging films that never for a moment condescend to their audience.

– Charlie Bass

Paranoid Park is currently playing in theaters.

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