Paranoid Park (2008) dir. Gus Van Zant
Starring: Gabe Nevins, Jake Miller, Taylor Momsen, Daniel Liu
Gus Van Zant’s “Paranoid Park” arrives in selected cities after a lengthy festival run in 2007, starting in Cannes and winning a special jury prize. Though not part of his unofficial death trilogy (“Gerry”, “Elephant”, “Last Days”), it's more in keeping with this austere and freeform phase of his career than his Hollywood star-driven films. “Paranoid Park” doesn’t hit the emotional impact of his previous three films, but Gus Van Zant is always interesting and “Paranoid Park” is still beguiling and worthy to experience.
The film begins with Alex Nevins – a typical teenager skateboarder, apathetic about most things in his life except skateboarding - writing his thoughts in a diary. Then it’s revealed that a security guard was killed by a train near the local skateboard park. Then it’s revealed Alex is a suspect. The aftermath of the event affects his home life, his school life and his social relationships.
Like “Last Days” and “Elephant” the audience sees scenes played out of order. Since nothing is played for clever, you don’t actually realize the story is jumbled until midway through the film. This technique is made different than say “21 Grams” because Alex’s emotions never change throughout the film. We don't notice what’s before or after the murder because what’s in his head is never shown on screen.
So what is Alex thinking? What responsibility does he feels for his actions? The film is not about escaping conviction, or hiding his tracks but how Alex deals with the aftermath of the murder. And we don’t actually realize this until the final act of the film. It’s very subtle and only becomes absolutely clear with the magnificent final shot. Though completely different in style it’s a good companion piece to one of the Dardenne Bros' great films – “L’Enfant”. A similar story about the fallout from a tragic event where the characters' emotions are revealed by their physical actions.
The themes and moral conundrums are the stuff of inspired and moving storytelling. Unfortunately Van Sant’s execution is off. “Paranoid Park” lacks the fluid and consistent elegance which is a hallmark of his previous work. The inconsistency and incongruous music was the most distracting. Van Sant’s musical choices range from hardcore skater punk to whimsical 1960's Nina Rota scores to the folk sounds Elliot Smith (from “Good Will Hunting”). Some songs emphasized and supported the emotion of the scene (specifically the fantastic use of that Elliot Smith song), but at other times it's absurdly eccentric to the point of alienating art house pretension.
Van Sant doesn’t make it easy for the audience to jump into the film. He’s continually challenging the audience to find the film's meaning and purpose. But there is a clear purpose, and though it's not profound, "Paranoid Park" is truthful about the cold indignation of the typical American teenager. Enjoy.