Paranoid Park: Van Sant’s Moody, Stylish Panel in Youth Trilogy

Cannes Film Fest 2007 (Competition)–“Paranoid Park,” the third–and the most technically accomplished—panel in a youth trilogy, that began with “Elephant” in 2003 and continued with “Last Days” in 2005, finds Gus Van Sant at the top of his form.

Style and form cohere and congeal in such a smooth and fluent way in “Paranoid Park,” that the film represents the summation of Van Sant’s return to his indie roots after a decade or so of making studio movies, some good like the Oscar-winning “Good Will Hunting,” while others mediocre like “Finding Forrester,” or just bad like the inane remake of “Psycho.”

As of today, the French-financed and produced “Paranoid Park” has no American distributor. And while there’s no doubt that the feature would get one, there’s also no doubt that the audience for this art film is very small, since it goes out of its way to be non-narrative–by any standard.

The film’s budget is small ($3 million), based on Van’s Sant perfecting a mode of filmmaking that’s quick and efficient. Considering how technically polished “Paranoid Park” is, it’s amazing to note that its shooting schedule consists of only 18 days.

It’s time to consider Van Sant as American cinema’s most dedicated chronicler of youth, particularly working class, disaffected, and regional youth subcultures; his stories are often set in Portland, Oregon, where he lives and works. In a career spanning two decades, most of Van Sant’s work has centered on disconnected teenagers and youngsters, “Mala Niche,” “My Own Private Idaho,” “Drugstore Cowboy,” and even the studio-made “To Die For.”

If “Paranoid Park” is the most successful effort in his trilogy, it’s at least in part a result of the source material, a novel by Portland writer Blake Nelson that Van Sant has adapted freely to the screen. The title describes a homemade facility frequented by the sport’s more avid practitioners.

For some conservative critics, the problem with “Elephant” was its close association with the Columbine catastrophe, and same can be said “Last Days,” Van Sant’s pseudo biopic of music phenom Kurt Cubain. Free of those external and political associations, “Paraonid Park” operates on its own terms as a one-of-a-kind filmic experience.

Nominally speaking, “Paranoid Park” recalls such American classics as Nicholas Ray’s James Dean starrer “Rebel Without a Cause” and Tim Hunter’s “River’s Edge.” Like “Rebel Without a Cause, “Paranoid Park” centers on a confused high-schooler named Alex (Gabe Nevins), a more amoral than immoral teenager in desperate need for guidance, which he cannot get from his parents or teachers. And like “River’s Edge,” the new work involves a fatal accidental (and a dead body) and the moral dilemma of what to do and whether or not to inform the police.

I have not read Nelson’s Portland-set novel, but I assume that its structure is linear. In contrast, Van San’t movie is anything but linear or even slightly dramatic. Instead, his tale unfolds out of order, beginning in the middle of the story, then going forward and finally going backward.

Mid-way, when Van Sant discloses details about Alex’s role in the accidental death of a security guard, you realize that the saga is not about the dead man, but about a teenager who lives in a moral limbo, in a state of confusion and anomie with no role models-or even people to talk to.

Fortunately, Van Sant is not an amateur psychologist or sociologist and is not interested in explaining Alex (mis) conduct. Instead, he is a good filmmaker who understands how color and movement and rhythm can convey a subjectiv state of mind more precisely, vividly, and beautifully that long monologues or dialogues. As writer and director, Van Sant doesn’t pretend to understand his protags, nor for that matter does he judge them; his main concern is to capture the essence of their lifestyle.

To that extent, Van Sant has found the right activity, skateboarding, to convey visually and emotionally the lifestyle of teenagers, who find catharsis only when they skateboard in a park, even though they are not part of an organized community.

There’s a wonderful scene, in which detective Richard Lu (Dan Liu) visits the high-school and talks to the students. Lu claims that he wants to get to know and understand them as members of a group, but the very notion of group is foreign to them. Unlike Catherine Hardwicke’s “Lords of Dogtown” (and other pictures), “Paranoid Park” is not about skateboarding; Van Sant is using this sport as a backdrop and metaphor. Its the kind of activity you do by yourself yet it’s always more fun if you’re surrounded by others, even if there is not much verbal communication.

A quintessential Van Sant (anti)hero, Alex is a handsome and appealing long-haired adolescent, a product of a broken family; his parents are separate but not divorced yet. Alex is the protag and narrator: “Paranoid Park” is punctuated by minimal voice-over narration and is illustrated by shots seeing Alex writing a journal, always beginning with the words Paranoid Park; the writing often takes place outdoors.

Though the film begins with a murder mystery, when the body of a security guard is found after having been run over in the rail yards, and the police knows there is foul play, Van Sant is not interested in resolving the puzzle. As noted, Mid-way, he recteates the tragic night, in which Alex inadvertenly caused the guard’s death while riding on a train with his buddy Jared (Jake Miller).

Van Sant is more interested in how Alex interactsor does notwith his peers, girls, and parents, and how he dealsor does notwith the aftermath of the murder, with feelings of guilt and responsibility.

It goes without saying that the interaction with boys is minimal and that Alex is more of an intrigued voyeur of skateboarding than an enthusiastic participant since he himself acknowledges his deficiencies. As for girls, there are several of them: There’s Jennifer (Taylor Mamsen), the current girl friend, and Macy ((Lauren McKinney) who follows him around. Both women are more aggressive than Alex, which is not hard considering how passive and apathetic he is.

I think Van Sant makes a mistake in the way he portrays a sex scene, which is initiated by the virginal girl, and is so quick, as if to suggest that the act itself is irrelevant, just one more thing to do without joy or impact. Hence, right after the sex, the girl calls her mates to tell them how fabulous it is, though there’s no evidence of that. Van Sant spends longer time depicting Alex in the shower, albeit in a non-voyeuristic and non-sensationalistic manner, than showing him engaged in other activities. (The shower scene, the decor, and the sound are replete with references to Hitchcock’s “Psycho” and “The Birds”).

That the director is enamored of his youth and completely takes his POV is clear in the few interactions Alex has with his parents. In one scene, the mother is first heardreproaching of course–but not seen, and when we do get to see her, it’s from a distance, faceless. Clearly, Alex’s mother is an ineffective and ineffectual parent with no influence on him. Alex’s father is just as amorphous character as his mom. He appears in one scene only, in which he mumbles about not wanting to hurt Alex and explaining that the divorce is difficult, because “it’s not easy to deal with your mother.”

Working for the first time with ace cinematographer Chris Doyle, best known for his work with Wong Kar Wai, Van Sant shot his film both in Super 8 and 35mm. The Super 8 footage, done by Rain Kathy Li, is particularly effective in capturing the fast-flying, nearly surreal imagery of skateboarding. Other sequences are presented in slow-motion, and as in previous films, Van Sant favors repetition of imagery, here evident in Alex pacing the school’s long corridors, walking in the green field toward the water, and so on.

Considering the film’s running time (85 minutes), it boasts one of the denset and richest soundtracks, courtesy of the sound team headed by sound designer Leslie Shatz, and their forecful soundscapes, largely orchestrated by Ethan Rose. For example, in one short scene, as Alex is driving in his car, the music changes from rap to classical music all the way to country music.

With all my admiration for the bravura filmmaking, one elements is baffling and distracting. About one third of the feature is played to scores from Nino Rota, Fellini’s brilliant composer who wrote distinctive, highly melodic music. Van Sant is using those buoyant scores as counterpoint to his rather somber text, but the music is so powerful that it overwhlems and often drowns the slender scenario, calling too much attention to itself.

In interviews, Van Sant has said that, to lend greater authenticity, he recruited his cast members via the Internet, MySpace.Com to be exact Like “Elephant” and “Last Days,” “Paranoid Park” is a not about acting, and it doesn’t matter much that the actors are non-expressive since they are used as tools in Van Sant’s highly elaborate filmic scheme.

It’s legitimate to ask where does Van Sant go from here since he can’t continue making pictures with no audience support Works bout youth became cult films due to their popular embracement by young viewers. But youngsters are not going to see “Paranoid Park,” in the same way that they didn’t support “Elephant” or “Last Days.”

Van Sant is now dangerously making esoteric art films for a small coterie of hardcore fans who treat his work as experimental cinema.


Alex (Gabe Nevins)
Jennifer (Taylor Momsen)
Jared (Jake Miller)
Det. Richard Lu (Dan Liu)
Macy (Lauren McKinney)
Scratch (Scott Green)


An MK2 production of a Marin Karmitz, Nathanael Karmitz presentation.
Produced by Neil Kopp, David Cress.
Directed, written, edited by Gus Van Sant.
Screenplay based on the novel by Blake Nelson.
Camera: Christopher Doyle, Rain Kathy Li.
Art director: John Pearson-Denning.
Set decorator: Sean Fong.
Costume designer: Chapin Simpson
Sound: Felix Andrew.
Sound designer: Leslie Shatz.
Running time: 85 minutes