Background: Gus Van Sant films are good to use as a litmus test when talking to people who say, "I'm a big movie buff!" Good Will Hunting, Psycho, and Finding Forrester? Sure. How about everything since them (Gerry, Elephant, Last Days) or before them (Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho)? The point being that Van Sant is mostly known for movies that don't really represent his niche: troubled young males. Paranoid Park is his adaptation of the 2006 Blake Nelson novel of the same name, and following his practice for Elephant, he cast a group of unknown actors (reportedly through MySpace), mostly students from Portland, OR. The book is set there and Van Sant filmed it there, but I don't know Portland well enough to know if the featured skate park is actually Paranoid Park. Anyway, the film was a smash at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, winning the 60th Anniversary Prize. The list of previous anniversary winners (it's every 5 years) doesn't explain to me what the award actually means. Let's just say that between Elephant and Paranoid Park, Cannes loves Gus Van Sant.
Synopsis: We first meet blank-faced Alex (Gabe Nevins) as he's privately writing in his journal (the first of about 25 journal-writing shots). He's detached and innocent, but quiet in an annoying sort of way, and soon enough we learn he has a secret to hide. Told in non-linear form, the story progresses as a mash up of slo-mo Super 8 video and slo-mo 35 mm film, and the soundtrack ranges from rap to classical to jazz to hard rock. The details of Alex's secret are slippery, but ultimately not that important. A security guard at the train yard near Paranoid Park was found dead, and both we and the police know Alex is involved in some way. Before we're let in on the details we've already seen his growing guilt take a toll on his daily life. His friendships are strained and his perspective on the world affected, or so it seems. Does he actually understand life in a different way, or is he just temporarily in a state of shock? We can't fully access his thoughts, and we're not supposed to - he's a teenager. Our purpose is to simply study how this particular teenager reacts to a catastrophic incident and take a meaningful lesson away from it.
+ The scene in which Alex is interviewed by Detective Lu - awesome camera angles and rapid-fire dialogue in a long take.
+ The Napoleon Dynamite scene. Mischievously long - and hilarious.
+ Some of the visuals, such as the opening credits and the walking through fallen leaves shot.
+ Gabe Nevins in his acting debut - not so much at first, but several scenes were impressive and by the end he had me.
- The frequent sound effects that got right under my skin. I felt like I had autism and the tag of my shirt was irritating me. (Is that in bad taste? It's not meant to be.)
- The skateboarding footage. What was the purpose? "To...." Ok, fine. Then why so much of it?
- The lack of background information on Alex and his relationship with his parents. I was missing just this much to really empathize with his character.
- Lauren McKinney as Macy. I found her utterly intolerable. Was that acting or just messing around?
- The shower scene. Love it or hate it for its effect, but you have to admit it was an unbearable moment.
Writing - 10
Acting - 8
Production - 7
Emotional Impact - 9
Music - 4
Significance - 5
Total: 43/50= 86% = B
Last Word: It took me a couple of hours to come around on this one as my first thoughts were, "What would Gus Van Sant do if he couldn't use any music or slow motion in his films?" Paranoid Park is haunting, brooding, and unpredictable - kind of like, well, a teenager. Van Sant has quietly become the established voice of teen angst over the last 20 years, and his subjects here are familiar in a strange way - maybe not from another movie (although more than once I was reminded of Elephant), but definitely from an American high school. The simple story was perfect for a creative director, but Van Sant's overproduction was ultimately too much for me this time around. I'll chalk this one up to personal taste; whereas others may have been stirred to the soul by the long takes and mind-drilling sound effects, I was occasionally restless and eventually exhausted. To say that Gus Van Sant's films require patience on the part of the viewer is an understatement (see Gerry), but even though I was prepared to sit through it, I don't think his incredibly frequent use of slow motion added any significant elements to the story here. If there was something symbolic in it, I'm sorry to say it was over my head. Switching gears, I was pretty impressed by the non-actor actors. Though he has the facial expression of an orphaned puppy, Gabe Nevins carried the film and was great in all of the scenes that took place at the school. The other characters were hardly tolerable, from his "dude" friend to his girlfriend to his parents. Not having read the book it's probably unfair for me to pick apart the characters, and their toxicity might have been by design, anyway. Or maybe that's just what happens when your casting agent is MySpace. To conclude: Paranoid Park is, I think, meant to be a thesis on the emotions of the American teenage boy in the midst of crisis. I almost want to call it Elephant-lite. The two films use violence in different ways, but the underlying message is how disaffected these teens are from that violence. I was disturbed, but I think the audio and visual elements distracted me from fully absorbing Paranoid Park.