Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 11/13/08 w/ Additional Edits.
Throughout his 20-plus year career, Gus Van Sant remains one of independent cinema's finest icons. Whether it's through art house fares like Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho, mainstream films like To Die For and Good Will Hunting, or his most recent experimental films about death like Gerry, Elephant, and Last Days. Van Sant has chosen to remain independent as he makes films with themes of loneliness, youth, and disappointments. In 2007, Van Sant premiered a new film at the Cannes Film Festival that year which won a special 60th Anniversary award about a group of skateboard kids in Van Sant's native Portland, Oregon entitled Paranoid Park.
Based on Blake Nelson's novel, Paranoid Park tells the story of young skateboarders in Portland, Oregon as a young skateboarder becomes part of an exclusive skateboard club. Then one night on a freight train, the young man runs into a security guard and accidentally kills him as he tries to deal with what he's done. Written for the screen, edited, and directed by Gus Van Sant, Paranoid Park is a mixture of Van Sant's recent experimental work in his Death Trilogy while channeling some of his art-house film that included his 1985 debut film Mala Noche. With a cast of mostly unknown actors including Gabe Nevins, Taylor Momsen, and Scott Patrick Green. Paranoid Park is a haunting yet enchanting film from Gus Van Sant.
A young high school kid named Alex (Gabe Nevins) has always been fascinated with skateboarding. Though he considers himself a decent boarder, he is part of a gang of skaters along with his best friend Jared (Jake Miller). Jared mentions an exclusive park for boarders called Paranoid Park. Alex watches all of the skateboarders skateboard and do all of their stunts as to him, it's heaven. Wanting to go again with Jared, Jared goes out to another place as Alex goes alone to Paranoid Park where he meets one of its regulars named Scratch (Scott Patrick Green). Scratch skates one of his boards as the two goes on a freight train where they encounter a security guard (John Michael Burrowes) and something bad happens.
Alex is forced to ponder on what he's done as he finds himself drifting. Even when his girlfriend Jennifer (Taylor Momsen), he tries to figure what to do as he even suggests in talking to his father as his parents are currently going through a divorce. When a detective (Dan Liu) interrogates all of the skaters in the community, he has another with Alex where he gives his own interpretation of what had happened. Yet, his own guilt starting to ravage him and wonder had happened on that night. One of his friends Macy (Lauren McKinney) makes a suggestion where Alex finally tells his story through a notebook while pondering that unique world of Paranoid Park.
Told in a first-person perspective from the mind of its protagonist, the film is mostly non-linear as Gus Van Sant goes into the mind of a young man who is trying to pin-point all that had happened from his attraction to Paranoid Park onto the event where he saw something horrific happen. While the film is more plot-driven than his previous three features where he explored death. The film still has the same kind of looseness of his Death Trilogy where it's more about mood rather than a conventional plot. At the same time, it's told from the perspective of a kid through a notebook as he narrates and ponders what he has to do with this situation and how to tell it.
Van Sant's adapted script is told in a loose narrative style where it's mostly non-linear yet uncovers what the film's protagonist is going through. At the same time, Van Sant explores the world of high school in a realistic fashion instead of a conventional, Hollywood style where the focus is on the popular kids or the idea of what high school might be. While the kids might seem like stereotypes on the outside, most notably the character of Jennifer, there's something interesting about them considering that they're real kids going through the things that kids in high school are really going through. The film's story about the death of the security guard as it's told in memory. In the event of something that catastrophic, things don't become clearly which is why the film begins with Alex trying to write something down.
Van Sant's script is definitely wonderful in its approach but it's his direction that is really the film's highlight. With Van Sant also serving as his own editor, the film works in this loose, unconventional style of narration with moods and atmospheric scenery that is truly enchanting. With footage of skateboarders shot in a Super 8mm film style, there's something poetic in the way Van Sant captures the world of skateboarding in Portland, Oregon. Shooting on real locations and in a style that is truly engaging, Van Sant's direction is definitely top-notch filled with slow-motion shots done with his unique approach to his editing. Van Sant's editing style is done in an elliptical approach to the pacing where in its 84-minute running time, it floats very soothingly in its direction as it uncovers each moment while taking the time to tell the story. The overall result is Gus Van Sant still at the power of his work as an artist.
Helping Van Sant in the visual department is Christopher Doyle, the famed cinematographer for Wong Kar-Wai and had previously worked with Van Sant in the 1998 remake of Psycho. Doyle along with Rain Kathy Li creates some amazing, colorful, and moody shots for many of the film's greyish exterior scenes for the daytime shots of Portland along with some wonderful, atmospheric nighttime shots. The interiors in both the day and nighttime shots are done with amazing intimacy and mood as it's playing to Van Sant's atmospheric direction. Doyle's work is truly superb along with the grainy look of the skateboarding sequences told in a beautiful yet poetic style.
Art director John Pearson-Denning and set decorator Sean Fong do fine work with the film's look for the houses that Alex stays in along with the other homes. Costume designer Chapin Simpson also does fine work in the costume with the look of t-shirts, baggy pants, and such to the style of the skater. Visual effects supervisor Chel White does great work in one of the film's rare special effects sequence in one of the film's horrifying moments. Sound designer Leslie Shatz provides one of the film's huge technical highlights with her sound work in the layering of voice to bring perspective to what the film's protagonist is thinking about. Some of the sounds of metal clanging and others are done in such a dramatic fashion that Shatz's work is truly superb as she's definitely become of Van Sant's key collaborators.
The film's soundtrack that was supervised by Van Sant is a wide mix of music ranging from hip-hop, metal, and blues music from acts like Cast King, the Revolts, and Cool Nutz. Yet, most of the music is dominated by three different styles of music ranging from folk, ambient, and classical. On the folk side are two cuts from the late Elliot Smith whose somber music pieces provide the right tone for Alex' own emotional anguish and despair. The ambient pieces by Ethan Rose also brings a wonderful, atmospheric tone to many of the film's eerie scenes and several skateboarding sequences. The final contributor is the late Nino Rota as Van Sant chooses four score pieces from two films by Federico Fellini. Three pieces from 1965's Juliet of the Spirits and one from 1973's Amarcord all have this whimsical yet romantic feel to Alex's own emotions and some of the high school antics as Van Sant truly chooses his pieces very wisely.
The casting by Lana Veenker, Berney Telsey, and David Vaccari is truly superb with appearances from filmmaker M. Blash as a science teacher and cinematographer Christopher Doyle as Alex's uncle Tommy. Other small performances from Susan Ploetz as a teacher, Winfield Jackson as Alex's brother who does a hilarious Napoleon Dynamite impression, Grace Carter and Jay "Smay" Williamson as Alex's parents, and Emma Nivens as a friend of Scratch are memorable. Other small memorable appearances like Emily Galash as Macy's friend Rachel and John Michael Burrowes as the security guard are excellent. Daniel Liu is really good as Detective Richard Lu, a man doing his job though he does understand what kids do and act like as he's really someone trying to help Alex.
Scott Patrick Green is very good as Scratch, a regular at Paranoid Park who befriends Alex as they take part in a moment that would be tragic. Taylor Momsen of Gossip Girl is good as Alex's girlfriend Jennifer who feels neglected about Alex's trips to Paranoid Park while acting like the obnoxious popular girl who really doesn't understand the skateboard culture. Lauren McKinney is really good as Macy, the girl who really understands Alex while being the girl who seems more right for him while giving him an idea that would be the basis for the film. Jake Miller is excellent as Jared, a fellow skater who shares Alex's enthusiasm for skating all things that high school boys do in his hopes to get laid. Finally, there's Gabe Nevins in a superb performance as Alex. Nevins' subtle, mystical performance is truly a highlight of the film as he brings a sense of realism and enchantment to the role of a high school kid dealing with tragedy and how he's confronting it. It's truly a mesmerizing performance from the young actor.
Paranoid Park is truly a haunting yet engrossing film from Gus Van Sant that definitely ranks up there with earlier classics like Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho. Fans of Van Sant's recent experimental work will no doubt enjoy the poetic imagery and atmosphere he creates for the film along with Christopher Doyle's cinematography, Leslie Shatz's sound design, and the film's soundtrack. Audiences wanting a more realistic look at high school will definitely find something they can relate to as opposed to the fantasy world that is High School Musical. In the end, Paranoid Park is a film that puts Gus Van Sant as one of the true leading voices in American cinema.
Gus Van Sant Films: Mala Noche - Drugstore Cowboy - My Own Private Idaho - Even Cowgirls Get the Blues - To Die For - Good Will Hunting - Psycho (1998 film) - Finding Forrester - Gerry - Elephant - Last Days - Milk - Restless - Promised Land
(C) thevoid99 2011