Paranoid Park

Directed by: Gus Van Sant
Written by: Gus Van Sant
Starring: Gabe Nevins, Daniel Liu, Taylor Momsen

One of the main draws of seeing a film is the performances. Sometimes an actor or actress are so impressive in a role, that it seems like a complete art all by itself. Peculiar then, how Gus Van Sant’s recent movies have been so great without using actors, but everyday people instead. While Paranoid Park is not a masterpiece like Van Sant’s Elephant, the director is again able to create a unique mood, partly attributable to the amateur cast. Both films focus on high school students, and I am now convinced that no one can shoot a high school like Gus Van Sant. The way the movie is actually put together is nowhere near amateurish. It is experimental, but expertly pulled off with astonishing results.

The movie follows a skateboarder named Alex (Nevins), who may be involved with a murder near the popular skate park, Paranoid Park. Although it is unclear exactly what happened until later, he appears to have a guilty conscience. We become more suspicious when the story Alex told the detective investigating the case, is contradicted by a flashback. The entire movie is non-linear, and unlike the typical “Rashomon” approach, it is not always clear whether or not the movie is showing a flashback or flash-forward, it is just always moving sideways. Alex narrates the picture by reading out loud a letter or story he seems to be writing, and the movie jumps along in the order he describes his story. A bit incoherent, but after all as he says, he “didn’t take creative writing”.

Non-actor Gabe Nevin’s narration is spoken like any average teenager would read their homework aloud in class. He’s a bit nervous and makes the occasional error. This is a brilliant artistic choice and cements the realistic portrayal of adolescence. Not just his guilt, but all the other feelings Alex has are felt by the viewer even when the feelings are not voiced, just observed. His parents are going through a divorce, and he’s stuck in a relationship with a girl he has no real feelings for. It’s obvious he wants to and should leave her, but she’s easy, and Alex’s friends think it’s crazy to pass up “free sex”. After all, as his apparently best friend Jarrod eloquently puts it, “getting laid is better than not getting laid”.

As the movie seamlessly moves side to side, all the scenes blend together. This is the way Alex is drifting through life, without paying attention to much of anything. The film is inter cut with footage of random people skateboarding. The way it is presented is dreamlike and hazy, suggesting that the lives of teens is sort of like a dream, or being asleep. However, sooner or later, we are exposed to what is dark in this world and in fellow human beings, and we must wake up.

We are able to see Alex before and after the incident at the park, and we can see that he will never be the same once he goes there. In a midway scene, Jarrod tells Alex that they should check out Paranoid Park for the first time. It’s where the cooler, more advanced skaters go. Alex insists he is not ready for Paranoid Park. Jarrod replies “no one is ever really ready for Paranoid Park”. Reluctantly, Alex gives in and agrees to go. Time to wake up.

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