Few films have been released in the past several years with the artistry and emotional impact of Paranoid Park (2007). Directed by auteur Gus Van Sant, at first glance this film looks like a teen high school drama. However that is just the surface. Van Sant uses this film as a device to explore the secrets that we all carry, focusing on what is hidden beneath the surface. Van Sant made the film with an ultra-realistic style, utilizing non-actors, ad-libbed dialogue, and extremely long takes. Although these “home video” techniques may seem amateur to some, Van Sant uses them to his advantage. He crafts a film that feels like a dream that starts out beautiful and then gets progressively darker.
In the movie Gabe Nevins plays Alex, a teenage skater whose initial problems involve skateboarding, borrowing his mom’s car, and satisfying his high-maintenance girlfriend. These problems are soon pushed to the background as one night Alex becomes entwined in the gruesome accidental death of a security guard. The majority of the film focuses on the psychological struggle Alex faces afterward. Shortly after the accident occurs, Alex goes home talking to himself. He rattles off his options, wondering who he can call or what he can do. After deciding that telling anyone about the accident will result in going to jail, Alex throws away his blood-splattered skateboard. This simple act begins a long spiral of cover-ups.
The screenplay is written by Gus Van Sant, based on a novel by Blake Nelson. It is appropriately told out of sequence, after the accident occurred. The film opens with Alex on the beach, writing in a notebook. His voiceover creatively navigates us through the events that took place previously. Throughout the narration, Alex apologizes for telling it out of order and fills in blanks he leaves along the way. Certain parts of the film are played repeated times, taking on a new meaning each time. This is a technique Van Sant has utilized in past films such as Elephant to show individual perspectives of characters. These perspectives change as information is gradually revealed. For instance, in the beginning of Paranoid Park we see Alex being questioned by a cop and we sympathize with Alex. His answers to questions are calm and convincing. Only later, after Alex recounts the actual events to the audience, do we find out that several of his answers were false. Not until halfway through the film does the audience find out exactly how the security guard died that night and why Alex lied about the things he did. The non-linear narrative and repetitive editing effectively tell the story in bits, almost like a puzzle that the cops haven’t solved yet.
As far as acting goes, Gus Van Sant seems to understand the intricate and self-searching minds of teenagers. In a sense, being a teen in today’s society is an ongoing identity crisis that is only complicated by society telling them who to be. Teenagers are aware of this, as evidenced by lingering shots of them walking down school hallways as comfortable groups defined by microcultures. A short scene of Alex driving his mom’s car also reveals character and the search for identity. The scene shows Alex by himself in the car, flipping radio stations and reacting differently to various types of music. Van Sant’s use of real skater kids instead of actors is proof of his dedication to realism in his films. His strategy seems to be that if a role is cast correctly, the scenes will happen with very little directing or even memorizing lines. The kids’ performances in this film are memorable and genuine not because they were great actors, but because they were given freedom to play with their roles as if in a real setting. When Alex bumps into his friend Macy (Lauren McKenny) at the mall, their interaction is genuine. Their conversations drift between subjects of skateboards, sex, music, Subway sandwiches, and starving kids in Africa. Alex and his friends display a genuine desire to understand adult issues, but an inability to handle them in adult ways. This is displayed not only with Alex in dealing with his tragic accident, but with his girlfriend Jennifer (Taylor Momsen) and her obsession with sex. When Jennifer finally gets her way, it is a disturbing, achingly moving scene that will open parents’ eyes to the sexual pressures placed on teens. It is moments like this that make Van Sant’s film truthful in an unpretentious way.
Cinematographer Christopher Doyle does a fantastic job making this film stand out as a lyrical piece of art. He allows the camera to linger on extreme close-ups of faces; he creates quivering handheld shots played in slow motion, later overlapped with asynchronous voices. The camera angles are unique, yet simple. Several times the camera is actually attached to a skateboard in order to get a low-angle shot from ground level at the skate park. Among my favorite cinematic moments are the delayed Super 8 sequences throughout the film. These flowing sequences feature low-angle shots of skateboarders, set against an ethereal, ambient score. While these bits of film may seem misplaced in a typical narrative, they fit right into this film. Van Sant uses them to establish the skate park setting, give the film an artistic feel, and allow the viewer to pause for self-reflection. Much of the film is told through long shots with no dialogue. One powerful shot is an extreme close-up on Alex’s face as he showers after the accident. Emotion is expressed through his desire to wash himself of the terrible memory as the reality of what happened settles in. This is one of the shots repeated multiple times throughout the film. The first time the viewer sees Alex in the shower, they assume it is just to cool down after skateboarding. After Alex fills in the gaps in his story, we see what happened that fateful night, and the shot is replayed. The second time the shot takes on a haunting quality, as the viewer is aware of the guilt and fear Alex hides.
Visual effects are used sparingly in the film, and mostly limited to in-camera techniques. This organic style of shooting creates a larger emotional impact during the moments of violence in which visual effects must be employed. For example, consider the more recent Star Wars films, which are laden with special effects. The audience becomes immersed in an imaginary world, to the point that it is desensitized to any form of violence. Limbs are dismembered and countless aliens are slaughtered, yet Star Wars films lack emotional impact due to the fact that they feel make-believe. Paranoid Park is quite the opposite. Because the film is made so believably, through restrained use of visual effects, the audience feels as if they are actually witnessing the helpless body of a security guard split in two by a train. The result is one of the most emotional and disturbing moments in any recent film.
Van Sant’s directing style leaves an impact because he knows people so well. He understands what makes people uncomfortable and finds ways to express unsettling truth in his films. A few of his past films deal with drug additions (Drugstore Cowboy), school shootings (Elephant), and falling rock stars (Last Days). Van Sant’s style incorporates elements from other styles of cinema. He uses experimental sequences in almost every film he does, rejecting the mainstream Hollywood style of narrative. Characteristics of his films are unconventional structure, as seen in Paranoid Park, with flashbacks and repeated action used within the narrative to help tell the story. Van Sant is also known for his use of limited dialogue. In the case of Last Days, nearly the entire film was told visually without words. While this prevented the film from being a smash box office hit, it perfectly utilized film as a visual medium. Images and naturalistic sounds replace dialogue to express the character’s inner thoughts. Other films such as Milk incorporate archive footage into the narrative in order to give it a realistic, documentary feel. This is one of my favorite techniques because it not only contributes to the historical feeling of the film, but also makes it more multidimensional and layered, almost like a scrapbook on film. Still other examples of Gus Van Sant’s work demonstrate his usage of unfinished endings. Elephant is most notorious for this, as it ends with a gun pointed at two of the lead characters and the weapon-holder cornering them in a walk-in cafeteria refrigerator. The camera slowly pulls back before cutting to a scenic shot of a streetlight. Credits begin to roll. The ending of Paranoid Park is a less-drastic version of this; however the story is still fairly open-ended.
In the end, the question Paranoid Park asks is whether someone can keep a life-altering event a secret. In the film the answer appears to be no. Alex is so consumed by his guilt and shame that he is unable to focus on daily life. In a good way, the event has helped shape his view of the world, and given him perspective to counteract the trivial teenage matters his friends find important. However, overcoming his burden of guilt is the first step in forming a new relationship with his level-headed friend Macy. Without being aware of his entire situation, Macy offers Alex a piece of advice. She tells him he’ll go crazy if he tries to keep his secret inside, and encourages him to write it down. This brings the film full-circle as we see Alex going to the beach to write down everything that happened, as seen in the film’s opening. After finishing his story, Alex takes the pages he’s written and solemnly places them in a bonfire. This represents the release of his secret. It serves as a glimmer of hope that he will be able to move on in life, without ever being discovered. The camera eases in on the flames lapping at the paper and fades to black. While many internet bloggers have debated whether or not this ending is morally right, I believe it is fitting for this film. I like that it makes us want to ask questions; I like that it serves as a satisfying conclusion, while still remaining open enough for viewers to decide what happens next in Alex’s story.
Overall, Paranoid Park is a beautifully understated display of minimal writing, fluid camerawork, naturalistic acting, refined directing, and restrained editing. These combined elements make Paranoid Park an outstanding piece of art. The film serves as an inspiration to young filmmakers because it was made on a very tight budget, defied conventional Hollywood techniques, and still managed to win the 60th Anniversary Award at the Cannes Film Festival. It went on to play in select theaters around the world, further entrancing audiences with its beauty, while leaving them intrigued with questions to ponder as the credits roll. Personally, I couldn’t ask for more in a film.