Any mention of a Gus Van Sant film is nearly always accompanied by comments of being about disaffected or alienated male youth. While this is invariably both true and unavoidable, such superficial descriptions don't really do Paranoid Park justice. Van Sant's latest film is a profoundly intimate, moving and insightful meditation on the inner world of a youth in crisis.
Alex is sixteen and, aside from navigating the usual hurdles of adolescence, school, girls and life in general, his parents have recently undergone a messy separation. His escape is to hang out with his buddy Jared, and together they discover Portland's tough Eastside Skate Park. Known to the locals as Paranoid Park, it was built by the skaters themselves, and is a magnet for all kinds of dropouts.
Alex is a fairly normal kid but everything changes one evening when he goes to Paranoid Park alone and is involved in the death of a security guard. He keeps this toxic secret to himself, but gradually reveals all in his diary.
Of Van Sant's films, Paranoid Park is aesthetically most similar to Elephant. It defies a linear narrative, circling around the central facts which reflect Alex's state of shock and inability to come to terms with what has happened.
Other stylistic devices convey Alex's fractured state of mind, such as the use of a varied range of eclectic music. Similarly effective is the use of slow motion, creating a dreamy ambiance that complements the music at times, or contrasts at others, the music.
The film opens to the sounds of an ambient French track that matches the imagery of skaters floating through space, defying gravity. In fact, Paranoid Park is a French production and while the story and participants are clearly American, the film really has qualities reminiscent of French cinema. Van Sant seems to be revered in France more so that in his own country. His work has stark similarities to my favourite type of French cinema.
The depiction of grownups from a teenage perspective is fascinating. When in frame, they either have their backs to us, or cinematographer Chris Doyle's use of long lenses to strictly control focus means we mostly see them as a blur. They are not absent, but don't figure prominently in Alex's world. This is also subtly accentuated in conversations. "It's not like she cares", moans Alex about his mother when questioned about his movements.
We do, however, clearly see Detective Richard Liu. His strong presence shakes Alex out of his dreamy inner world and gives us a more grounded reference point within the story. His quiet intensity as he faces off with Alex at a crucial moment is as emotionally powerful as anything I have ever experienced on screen. This is when the true impact of Alex's ordeal, as well as Van Sant's genuine empathy for his characters is fully revealed.
In Paranoid Park, youth are disconnected from adults, but also parents are unable to engage with their children. Alex is in his own world that seems impenetrable to his parents, and they seem to struggle with words he can relate to. When Alex's father talks about inevitable divorce, his words have little interest to Alex.
Cast with mostly non-professionals, much has been made of Van Sant's casting call via MySpace, though apparently none of the main actors were found in this way. Van Sant has used improvisation with the actors, resulting in dialogue full of authenticity, light-years from the slick depictions of youth in contemporary cinema. His characters, both adults and youths, sometimes struggle with their words. The performances were terrific.
In fact, I find it hard to fault the film in any way. The cinematography is stunningly natural, the music is entrancing and the story is compelling. Technically, the most impressive aspect is careful construction of the story through editing (by Van Sant himself).
Starting with Gerry, this film caps off four consecutive films Van Sant has made in a minimalist style he is making his own. All four of them are concerned with youth and death. Life, death and what occurs between, these are all compacted within the framework of a Van Sant film. The films are not about death, but death is an event that provokes other dramatic elements. For me, Paranoid Park is the most touching of all his films, at least as good as Elephant and as good as anything I've seen in the last year.
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