CINEMA TALK: Director delivers poignant film
Gus Van Sant follows his intuition and artistic sensibilities, not box office numbers. His recent movie, Paranoid Park, definitely didn’t pack the multiplexes, grossing only about half its budget. Such financial shortcomings are often the risk of making a good art film. It’s a bummer that the masses didn’t care to see this languidly paced psychological drama, filled with sincere performances, ambient music and beautiful cinematography. Those who ignored Paranoid Park during its theatrical run can now atone, because it has just been released on DVD.
Set in Portland, Oregon, Paranoid Park is about a teenager named Alex (Gabe Nevins) who likes to spend time at the local skate park – a place where "train hoppers, guitar punks, skate drunks (and) throwaway kids" hang out. After accidentally killing a security guard in a train yard near the skate park, Alex is besieged with guilt and anxiety. As he tries to reconcile these harrowing feelings, he must also deal with the divorce of his parents, girl problems and other stressful teenage issues.
Alex attempts to ease his apprehension by writing his confession in a private journal. The entries are used as voiceovers that push the narrative, slowly divulging details about the death of the guard and Alex’s response to it. He keeps the incident to himself, ditches the evidence and hopes that no one finds out what he did, but soon detectives come to his school to question members of the "skateboard community," who they think have something to do with the killing.
In the hands of a less skilled director, a story like this is dangerous territory, but Van Sant never succumbs to any clich’eacute;s. Alex’s angst is never sensationalized, and Paranoid Park contains no unneeded suspense, wordy dialogue or anything else that would compromise the film’s pensive atmosphere.
Though it has considerably more plot development than some of Van Sant’s other movies, Paranoid Park isn’t driven by its storyline. Instead, the plot takes a back seat to the examination of Alex’s internal conflict and disconcerted emotional state – an experience Van Sant effectively relays through subtlety and the power of image.
Masterfully shot by Christopher Doyle (In the Mood for Love, Chungking Express), the cinematography in Paranoid Park speaks immensities. Long, graceful shots seem to say all there is to say about the beauty and pain of adolescence. In addition to the crisp 35mm footage, there are interludes of grainy, documentary-style footage, which depicts boys skating around the city, doing board tricks, giving the camera the finger, screwing around and killing time. These images will come to define nostalgia for a generation of young skaters.
Van Sant has a knack for accurately depicting what it’s like to be a kid. Paranoid Park stars all untrained actors cast from MySpace. One scene shows Alex listening to his little brother talk about Napoleon Dynamite as they relax in their living room. He talks naturally, stutters and says "like" a lot. The scene feels so real that to watch it feels almost voyeuristic.
While Paranoid Park captures the spirit of teenagers, it wasn’t quite made for them. It takes a refined taste to appreciate this film, which is probably why it’s not marketable. Van Sant’s forthcoming film, Milk, which stars big names like Sean Penn and James Franco, is likely to draw more moviegoers than Paranoid Park. Milk opens late next month, but until then be sure check out Paranoid Park for a film by one of America’s best contemporary directors.