I was never into skateboarding, there’s this whole thing about being coordinated and I sort of lack that ability!
Screenplay By: Gus Van Sant
Directed By: Gus Van Sant
Paranoid Park is not a movie about kids, even though it may seem like it is. Paranoid Park is a movie about actions and dealing with those actions. It is a movie about how kids deal with the actions they take and what is important to them, but it’s not about kids in general. People tend to get hung up anytime a movie comes out that focuses on teenagers and immediately think the movie will be full of teen angst or that it will be full of inconsequential teen matters. Paranoid Park is yet another film by the brilliant Gus Van Sant that focuses on teens, but uses them as the voice of humanity, not some misguided teen angst. Sure, teens are teens so you will find some angst in Paranoid Park, but if you are looking for yet another movie to treat teens as shallow beings full of nothing but angst then keep on going and don’t give Paranoid Park another glance.
Van Sant’s similarly touted Elephant focused on the banality of life and the feeling of being present for something horrific, much the same can be said of Paranoid Park. But, the difference in Paranoid Park is that it is a film not about being present for the action, but how life goes on after the action has taken place and how people deal with their significant event while life continues on in always banal fashion around them. No scene better emphasizes this than Jennifer’s nonexistent, for one person at least, sexual encounter with Alex. In the world of Jennifer, the sex matters, it is a big deal, and it probably would be in the world of Alex, but he is trying to deal with something much more important than sex with a cheerleader. He is numb to everything around him, not in a completely dead to it all way, but rather in a fashion where he knows and understands all that is happening, but he can’t bring himself to care or get involved until he has dealt with his significant event. Paranoid Park is a series of events of Alex walking through life and being very human in his quest to somehow move past an event that movie going audiences have come to expect will be resolved in some sort of climax. That climax never comes in Paranoid Park, because any sort of climax would have gone against the everyday tone of the story. Instead Paranoid Park ends on a mute tone, with Alex asleep in class and life going as as usual, because no matter how big the event, for someone life always goes on as usual.
A lot has been made of the casting of non-actors in movies and how they can’t act or carry the dramatic presence necessary to sustain a film. I can understand that criticism when a highly fictionalized story is being told, but in a movie like Paranoid Park where reality is key the acting of non-actors is just what the doctor ordered. Real people stammer and stutter, they say the wrong things, they sit awkwardly, they look away from someone when they are talking to them, they have conversations that make no sense to anyone but themselves. The teens in Paranoid Park, and the adults, do all of these things because that is what would happen in real life. I don’t think Paranoid Park would carry even half the resonance it does if instead of non-actor Gabe Nevins as Alex we were given a professional actor such as a Haley Joel Osment in the lead. As great as even the best actors are, realism is the hardest thing to catch, and I doubt anyone could have done it as great as the cast of Paranoid Park did.
Gus Van Sant has developed a reputation for long, drawn out shots, usually of nothing. His style bores a lot of people, but it has never bored me because he never uses one long shot of nothing, every shot, no matter how long he holds it for has a meaning to it. He is an expert at creating beautiful visuals that contain ugliness within them or an absolutely breathtaking shot of the most mundane activity you could think of. In Paranoid Park Van Sant mixes up his angles effectively but he also mixes up his film stock in ingenious fashion, creating a dream like skate world where the viewer can disappear to along with the teens in question. In a world where every day more and more directors become the same recycled Hollywood version of one another Van Sant remains a breath of fresh air with Paranoid Park being his most recent great exhalation.
While I wouldn’t put Paranoid Park above Elephant in Van Sant’s body of work, it is a tremendous piece of art and a testimony to the power that film can carry. If you have been put off by any of Van Sant’s other works then Paranoid Park most likely isn’t for you. If you are one of the many people that have been put off of ever giving Van Sant the chance because of what people have said about his previous work then I urge you to give Paranoid Park a chance. It is similar to his other work, but in a lot of ways it is also his most accessible non-Hollywood work. Regardless of your taste in film, or your thoughts about Van Sant, Paranoid Park remains a tremendous film, and like a fine wine, it only gets better as time passes by.