Paranoid Park

Gus Van Sant’s films are not generally crowd pleasers; their financial draw is modest, and their marketability questionable. Although Van Sant dabbled in mainstream moviemaking with films such as Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester, his imprint is most recognizable on his more alternative fare like Gerry, Elephant and Last Days; all earning him critical acclaim and awards in festivals around the world, but little attention in movie theatres. The same can be predicted for Paranoid Park, a fragmented movie about a teenage skater with murder on his conscience. Although it is a Van Sant film at its finest, if you dislike or haven’t seen his previous work, you definitely won’t like this one.

The way Paranoid Park is crafted is powerful, as Van Sant, with the use of striking semiotics and intricate sound design, delves deep into his protagonist’s psyche. His cinematic quirks are numerous: lingering slow motion shots of people doing minimal things (walking, talking or staring), single-take skateboarding sequences shot in 8mm film, characters that remain unseen or out of focus throughout entire scenes… those are just a few of the tricks that Van Sant uses to convey his message. While at first they may seem pretentious and annoying, with a little patience and open-mindedness you realize, despite its unorthodox ways, that maybe this is what moviemaking is all about – storytelling without words. Paranoid Park is all about showing emotions instead of talking about them and picturing the story instead of writing it. Although not an easy feat, Van Sant pulls it off graciously, creating an understated yet mind-boggling portrait of a tortured adolescent.

Paranoid Park’s chronology is carefully disjointed to subtly build tension and amplify its storytelling’s effectiveness. Instead of introducing the main character before showing the crime and its consequences, Van Sant chooses to unveil his protagonist after the fact. When the police first interrogate him, the audience doesn’t even truly know what the crime is and whether he is involved in it or not. It is given no choice but to judge and analyze the teenager’s every word and idiosyncrasies while trying to discover whom this boy really is, and whether he is being honest or deceitful. Consequently, the audience is immediately involved in the story and fascinated by its lead. Furthermore, it allows the film’s simple plot to take on a level of intrigue that would otherwise be lacking. Not knowing the full extent of the crime until the third act, the script immerses the viewers inside the lead’s brain as they try to understand the scope of his emotions and what really happened on that cathartic night. Whereas in a lot of movies the fragmented storytelling feels more like a gimmick than anything else, in Paranoid Park it actually enhances the cinematic experience.

The movie’s cast mostly comprises of non-professional teenage actors, however, all of their performances are top notch. Gabe Nevins carries this film like a veteran despite its highly demanding and introspective style, and surpasses many established actors on his first try. The same can be said about the rest of the cast, as the actors deliver their lines with effective understatement and naturalness reminiscent of Kids. The acting is so realistic that one wonders whether it’s scripted or not, which is usually the result of very able directing. Van Sant’s directing and editing is paradoxically imperceptible and stylized, making of him a talent unique in its kind and a staple of American cinema. Additionally, Christopher Doyle’s cinematography is stunning. He manages to match Van Sant’s multilayered interpretation of the story by adopting a raw and intimate shooting style, while still displaying a slick color palette and breathtaking visuals. Needless to say, Paranoid Park is an exercise in nuance and introspectiveness. It uses intense imagery, seemingly unrehearsed acting and unique directing and editing, to tell its familiar story in an unconventional way.

Van Sant is an auteur and his oeuvres are unlike any others. Although they are an acquired taste, nobody can question their technical and filmmaking merits. Cinematically, Paranoid Park, although not the most accessible, is an unquestionable masterpiece. It is a film that itself embodies a teenager’s essence: annoying and difficult on the outside, but incredibly sensitive and beautiful on the inside. If given the time and effort, it will stand as a memorable and profound experience, however if watched only for its entertainment value, it will leave you sour and disappointed.

Although definitely not the proverbial walk in the park, Paranoid Park is definitely a stunning cinematic experience.

Review by Ralph Arida