Paranoid Park; Or, Teenage Crime and Punishment

Paranoid Park. 2007. Directed & Written by Gus Van Sant; based on the novel of the same name by Blake Nelson.
Starring Gabe Nevins, Taylor Momsen, Jake Miller, Dan Liu, Lauren McKinney, & Scott Green. MK2/Maximum Films/IFC Films.
Rated 14A. 84 minutes.

Gus Van Sant is yet another American director by which I’m enthralled. Not every last project he undertakes is as spectacular as his greatest, though there’s always a sense he pays attention to the minute details of his stories, that he wants to whittle life down to the nitty gritty. Each Van Sant film usually explores people on the fringe, characters living at the edges of society in one way or another, often the types that are sensitive to the world and its plights. No matter what his focus, Van Sant’s eye is always catching the beauty of the situation.
Paranoid Park examines the guilt (and paranoia which comes as a packaged deal) of a young skater kid, whose thoughtless action one night leads to the accidental murder of a security guard on the local train tracks. Based on a Young Adult novel by Blake Nelson, Van Sant adapts the screenplay into a psychological piece of cinema that looks at the hubris of youth and the disaffected attitudes of a young man, as well as ponders deeply the meaning of morality, how we live with ourselves when something challenges it, and most importantly how we either repent or forget our actions. Cinematographers Christopher Doyle and Rain Kathy Li help Van Sant cultivate his flawless look and feel, which fits so perfectly in the world of high school. As we float along with the camera, we’re given a peek into a time of life everybody’s been through. Although, the boy in the middle of all this experiences a far more adult situation than his brain, his morality, his will power can ultimately tolerate.
The flowingly beautiful cinematography is amazing. So many sequences I could mention, though it’d take forever. I love how the cinematographers slow certain things down, scenes you’d likely not imagine in slow motion. And in this way, they capture the gravitas of the situation, the plot. We can see clearly how devastated emotionally the main character becomes, as the camera lingers on him, on his movements, his face. Every little morsel of detail gets captured and in an extravagant way. To the point high school and teenage life seems more glorious and grand than it ever did in real life. There’s a heightened realism which hooks you. The visuals root the emotional experience of this film’s journey with the main character, taking you on a ride that feels at times as if it has you over the top of the clouds, gliding without care yet at the same time with the weight of the world upon your shoulders.
There’s great use of music, too. There’s this very classical sense about the film overall, as if it were made with adults in mind yet a story concerning teenagers. Lots of big band type stuff, pieces of music that’ll harken back to the 1940s and 1950s both in terms of music at the time, as well as in the sense of the movie itself feeling like one of those yesteryear classics. This in part plays into the feeling that Paranoid Park is similarly themed as Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, that these teenagers – mostly the main character Alex (Gabe Nevins) – are ahead of their time. Perhaps that’s not a good thing, perhaps Alex is too ahead of himself and doesn’t realize the destruction he’s wreaking upon his own innocence. Nevertheless, there’s an old timey atmosphere in some of the shots.
Other wise, Van Sant continues on with his impressive style. Gorgeous, sweeping tracking shots, slow motion moments where time feels stalled and we’re watching Alex try and keep his mind straight while walking through a world filled with distractions and danger. The quiet and thoughtful style of Van Sant helps us feel involved in the plot, and most importantly we’re engrained in the perspective of Alex while he holds onto his sanity, trying to salvage his morality; if the latter is even possible.
When it comes to the plot and the characters, everything feels so natural. I love the scene where police officers come to talk with skateboarders at the high school because you can hear them talking lightly over him, making comments, laughing and carrying on. There’s a real sense of disaffected, disconnected youth. When the cop passes around a picture of the murder victim and everybody sees him cut in half on the tracks, most of the young boys laugh, blown away by the brutality yet seeming utterly undisturbed. Certainly there’s a hint of something in Alex’s eyes, but even he doesn’t appear overly moved. At least not until later. But all the characters, the setting, the way high school kids feel throughout the screenplay and how the skaters interact with people and one another, is every bit organic. Couple that with the wonderful cinematography and there’s a highly realistic quality always present that makes us feel initiated into the world which Van Sant shows us.
Front and centre, Nevins puts in a spectacular performance. He is the crux of it all. In some cases, young actors are not my favourite. If we’re being honest. Only some are able to attain the level of emotionality necessary for fiction; others rarely hit that mark and always feel as if they’re acting, never like they’ve slipped into the role. Nevins has a natural quality that’s always there, through each scene and situation. His emotional depth is vast. We see him in the shower ready to break down, juxtaposed with his otherwise calm demeanour. We watch him go over everything in his mind, pieces of memory and slivers of guilt. This is a great role and Nevins uses it to the fullest. At times I want to shake him. Sometimes I’d like to throw my arm around him, say it’s going to be okay. Either way, the character of Alex and his moral dilemma comes across well through Nevins, pulling us in until we’re so close that the suffocating guilt and paranoia the character feels is nearly our own.
I bought Paranoid Park years ago on a whim. I love Gus Van Sant, even if I don’t love every one of his films. Though, most I do. I’m glad I picked this movie up because it pays off incredibly. There’s a nice sense of slow burning drama, almost to a point of thriller-like tendencies. Although what Van Sant does is keep things dreamy, perpetually enclosing us in the psychological space of our main character, the troubled young skater Alex. Using excellent cinematography, fun choices of music, and riding on the important performance of Gabe Nevins, Paranoid Park tries to get at the heart of morality, how it operates in the idiotically naivety of youth. Mostly, it presents Alex’s moral dilemma and then asks us to speculate about what sort of person he is, and what kind of man he will be eventually. Moreover, Van Sant attempts to peer inside how we connect with the world in our youth and the various ways in which we’re meant to act, versus all the ways in which we want to act and how we hope to connect with the world. A scene late in the film involving Alex and his girlfriend epitomizes his disconnect from life and the world around him, from a sense of normality. It’s easy to see that Van Sant, as well as novelist Blake Nelson, understand the trials of youth. Placed in an extreme situation, these trials are even more intense, and this film opens them up in front of us in all its psychologically scarring glory.

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