Paranoid Park (United States, 2007)
Paranoid Park is a rare breed: a movie about teenagers in which the characters talk like real teenagers, act like real teenagers, and are played by real teenagers. The difference between what's presented in this production compared to what we're used to is striking. Suddenly, the viewer is back in high school, navigating halls clogged with human bodies and trying to stay awake in classes where teachers drone on in monotones. You don't get that feeling from American Pie or Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Of course, director Gus Van Sant's objective with Paranoid Park isn't merely to remind audiences of their lost youth - it's to provide a window into the mind of a protagonist who, as the result of a bad decision and a worse accident, is forced to cope with issues that the average kid never even considers.
Alex (Gabe Nevins) is a refreshingly normal guy. He doesn't act like the construct of a writer or someone who would exist only within the context of a motion picture. Most of his problems are the ones faced by most children of his age: when to have sex with his girlfriend (Taylor Momsen), where to go on Friday night, and how to cope with the impending divorce of his parents. He has two best friends: Jared (Jake Miller), who's his skateboarding buddy, and Macy (Lauren McKinney), who's his confidant. One senses she would like the relationship to go a little further but, like many of Paranoid Park's little touches, this is only hinted at, not explored. The movie is a slice-of-life portrait that shows a segment of Alex's existence but leaves a lot unresolved.
We learn early in the film that Alex is somehow implicated in the death of a security guard. Since Paranoid Park meanders randomly throughout its chronology (as a result of being a visual depiction of a non-linear "confession" being written by the narrator/protagonist), it takes a while before all the pieces fall into place. What's interesting about this approach is we see Alex at different times: before the incident, immediately afterward, and somewhat removed in the future. Paranoid Park illustrates one of the great survival tactics of the teen years: the ability to distance oneself from even traumatic events. Initially, Alex has trouble coming to terms with his actions but he gradually learns how to manage, partly by ritualistically writing it all down then burning the manuscript. He's basically a good kid who made a mistake, and there's no reason to assume he's going to change.
This insight into Alex's mind is what makes Paranoid Park intriguing. Like every other teenager, he's searching for meaning. Unlike every other teenager, he has been given a rude introduction to the concept of mortality. Will the police catch him? It's hinted that the chief detective on the case (Daniel Liu) knows something, but no arrest is forthcoming. This isn't a murder mystery and the police are only on hand to remind Alex that there are consequences to his actions. Paranoid Park doesn't provide closure about the question of whether the legal system will ever catch up to Alex; that's not its goal.
For the principles, Van Sant has chosen a cast comprised of largely unfamiliar faces. Of the leads, Gabe Nevins, Jake Miller, Lauren McKinney, and Daniel Liu are newcomers. Only Taylor Momsen has a few credits to her name. She may best be remembered as Cindy Lou Who in the live action version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. (She has definitely grown up since then.) Nevins gives an affecting performance. Peering out from under overgrown bangs, he's the embodiment of the teen loner whose placid expression rarely changes no matter what he's thinking. The strength of the film is that it gets us behind that façade to see what's transpiring within.
Being an auteur, Van Sant can't resist flexing his stylistic muscles, sometimes to the film's detriment. There are sequences, such as a long, slow-motion shot of Alex walking down a school corridor, that serve little purpose beyond reminding the viewer that (s)he's watching an art film and that the director isn't working on a mainstream project. There are other instances, such as one in which Alex breaks down in the shower, where Van Sant's artistry proves to be a boon. His use of sound and lighting in this scene emphasizes the character's confusion and despair. Mostly, though, these moments do more to distract than enhance. It is worth noting that this may be Van Sant's most accessible movie in a number of years. After working within the Hollywood system in the late '90s, he went off on an indie binge for the first half of the 2000s. Paranoid Park, while still off the beaten path, is less self-absorbed and pretentious than anything Van Sant has crafted since Finding Forrester. It's a good way to re-introduce himself to audiences who may have found his more recent movies to be effective sleep aids.
Paranoid Park (United States, 2007)
Cast: Gabe Nevins, Daniel Liu, Taylor Momsen, Jake Miller, Lauren McKinney
Screenplay: Gus Van Sant, based on the novel by Blake Nelson
Cinematography: Christopher Doyle, Rain Kathy Li
U.S. Distributor: IFC