Directed by Gus Van Sant
There is a certain degree of fatalism in Paranoid Park. Everything feels singed at the edges, like the paper is burning from the outside, and it’s only a matter of time before it all disappears. Paranoid Park was made after Elephant and Last Days, Van Sant’s two previous feature films which both deal with the build up to a specific, violent outcome. Those two films are never about whether or not that violent end will take place, instead it’s again just a matter of time. Who are these characters when they’re near the end, whether they know it or not? This film, like those, memorializes something that cannot last. It focuses on the beautiful normal-ness, made all the more beautiful by the knowledge that it’s coming to an end. So Paranoid Park like Elephant, Last Days, Mala Noche, Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho feels like a eulogy.
The story is quite simple. We follow teenager Alex (Gabe Nevins) over the course of maybe a week or two as he gets himself in trouble and deals with the emotional fallout. The story jumps around in time so that the plot points in the film aren’t related to Alex’s journey but instead work as the reveal of new information for the audience, so that our relationship to him and the story evolves while Alex remains more or less the same.
We first meet this shaggy-haired teenager, his voice stuck between octaves and his clothes ill-fitting, as he writes a painfully stilted letter by the ocean. His narration tells us what he’s writing, and it’s unclear why he’s writing because he seems like the type of kid who would never touch a pen and paper unless for a class assignment. His vocabulary is rather simple, and everything feels a little heavy-handed. Later we will learn that this decision is near the end of the story, but it’s one of the first pieces of information given to us.
Before this there is some slow motion home video footage of kids skating at Paranoid Park, a grimy skate park under a bridge where a lot of seedy individuals hang out, or at least that’s what Alex and his high school friends think (“You never go to Paranoid Park alone,” they will later tell a detective). Under this home video footage we hear soft French music, and though I (and presumably most of the audience) can’t understand the lyrics, the music feels somber and longing. The mood is established early so that when we see Alex writing his letter, though we don’t know what it’s about just like we don’t know what the French singer is saying, we know this is about loss.
Much of this film feels incredibly awkward and self-indulgent, which felt perfect because this is about kids at an age where they hide from the world behind long hair, hoods, heavy eye-liner or simply by pulling back into their silent shell. These are fifteen year olds who think their pain is more real than that felt by others. It follows that they would write poorly-structured poems and stories and letters in which they struggle not only to explain how they feel but also to describe even the basic details of their life.
Alex’s letter is all over the place, and the structure of the film is a result of that. We only learn the reason for this letter halfway through the film and the letter itself. Of course this is a narrative device, meant to pull back before punching you in the gut, but it’s justified through Alex’s own decision-making process.
The constant jumping forward and backward in time (about a week or so) is very confusing. It’s not always immediately clear that we’ve moved around in time until later information provides more context that illuminates previous moments in the story. This story is about a kid who accidentally kills a guy (in brutal fashion) and tries to move forward with his life, but the lack of a clear conclusion (regarding the police investigation) as well as this murky time jumping serves to make us understand Alex before we even know what he did or why. For much of the film we take Alex’s moodiness and silence as a sign of who he is on a daily basis. But then, with this new information, we realize that this is only who he is right now. If I accidentally killed a person I’d probably be just as lost as he is.
This whole film puts you in the mind of a teenager and keeps you there. When you’re that age, nothing really makes sense, and you think your problems are wholly consuming. Example: I was always a fairly introverted kid who stayed out of trouble, but that didn’t mean I was without fear. I once got a 20 out of 70 on a chemistry test, and I was deathly afraid to tell my parents. I might’ve run someone over in my car later that day, and I would still remember that as the day I failed a chem test twice over.
So Paranoid Park gives you that same feeling. I felt for Alex throughout the film, both before and after we find out he killed a guy (I’ll describe what happened in a moment). When he sinks in his seat in front of an authority figure or tries to explain why he broke up with a girl he clearly didn’t get along with to his friends, it all felt relatable. Alex doesn’t know how to describe what he’s feeling, and that’s being a teenager in a nutshell. When the guys are skateboarding with each other, talking about how hot Jennifer was and the value of getting laid over not getting laid, even if you don’t like the girl, well that all felt like people communicating in the only way they know how. What Alex might’ve wanted to say was that he and Jennifer didn’t get along. They were just going through the motions, and anyways there’s another girl, Macy, with whom Alex is friends, and the film sets them up as a much more stable couple for the future.
Anyways, the point is that neither Alex nor his friends know how to communicate what’s going on inside them. They speak through references (there’s a South Park one thrown in) and things they’ve heard, not through any kind of original voice because they don’t yet know their voice.
The only way they really can communicate is through skateboarding, but I’d guess that they don’t realize this. Gus Van Sant does, however. That’s why he spends so much time giving us this slow motion footage of kids skating in Paranoid Park. The audience recognizes this as beautiful, and it’s very beautiful just from a technical standpoint. The old footage is fashionably old (with light leaks and film grain), and the music is so subtle and tragic-feeling.
So Van Sant embraces the ugly beauty of high school. As I watched this film, I thought about how thankful I am to not be that age anymore, but there was something so heartwarming about watching these kids interact. They’re all trying on life like a new pair of shoes, and when one doesn’t fit, they move onto the next one. There is very little tying these kids down, yet it feels like they’re burdened with something heavy, as if their parents (who are almost nonexistent within the story) give birth only to watch their children sink deeper into the ground.
So I should say what happens. Alex goes to Paranoid Park with his friend Jared, and he falls in love with it. The park is full of skateboarders and friends just hanging out. There is nowhere to go and no reason to be here, but they are regardless. Later, Alex plans to go to Paranoid Park over the weekend with Jared, but then Jared has to go to Corvallis for something unimportant.
Alex lies to his mother, telling her that he’s staying with Jared at Jared’s house (though Jared’s parents are out of town), and he decides to go to Paranoid Park alone. While there he is pressured into giving his skateboard to an older guy who feels like he’s bullying him with fake niceness. We’ve been told to be on the lookout for dangerous, seedy individuals and Alex has too. He has his guard up. By this point we know a security officer has died, but we still don’t know how, so we know to expect the danger.
The guy is nice, however, and he gives Alex his skateboard back after only a minute or two. He then invites Alex out for a few beers, and Alex agrees. We still don’t know what happens yet, but we’re fully sympathetic to Alex’s desire to become part of the group.
The guy shows Alex how to jump on a train and hang off the side for an easy ride. He tells him where to board and where to get off. A security officer sees them, and he runs up beside them, beating Alex’s new friend with a flashlight. Alex instinctively defends the guy who was so welcoming to him by hitting the security officer with his skateboard. The officer falls into the adjacent track and is promptly run over by a train, cutting him in half.
The whole incident is a little unbelievable, like a story that’s been passed from person to person and gets more exaggerated each time. Alex looks on in horror as the top half of the man crawls towards him, spilling his guts onto the gravel like a character in The Walking Dead, and holy shit was I not expecting that.
It’s so gruesome, but it’s so impactful. Yeah, again this incident is a bit of a stretch to believe, but I think it needed to be. Now we completely understand Alex’s guilt, depression and silence. When you’re a teenager, problems tend to feel as heavy as killing a person and getting away with it.
There is a police investigation, but it goes nowhere, at least by the time the film ends. Maybe the cops catch him and maybe they don’t. Maybe Alex gets a harsh prison sentence or maybe he gets a good lawyer, and with his age in mind, the penalty isn’t so bad. But whatever happens, it doesn’t matter. The climactic decision for Alex is to write a letter to get the weight of what he did off his chest. His friend Macy tells him to do this, and he does. Alex’s concern is just about feeling better emotionally. Other than when we see him trash his clothes from the night of the accident, Alex never seems to worry about getting caught. He’s too blinded by his own guilt to worry about his own safety. I guess when you’re a teenager, you don’t consider your safety…. well ever. Alex and his friends skateboard without helmets, they probably don’t wear their seatbelt as often as they should, and the idea of getting caught isn’t something Alex concerns himself with.
Even after the night of the accidental murder, the story focuses on Alex’s personal relationships as well as his doomed relationship with his girlfriend Jennifer. She wants to lose her virginity, but he has some reservations, deciding that once they sleep together, everything will become a little too serious. They do end up sleeping together, but Alex shows no signs of enjoying the moment. It’s understandable, of course, given what we know he’s done, but it’s still a bit unnerving and unexpected to watch a kid get laid and lie there as if he’s a mannequin. As it happens, everything is filmed in slow motion, and the only sound is that of (if I remember correctly) kids playing on a playground outside. It’s possible to see this as him remembering some kind of joy from his childhood, as if the loss of one’s virginity is akin to the death of childhood (Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides is all about this idea).
There are some happier moments once Alex breaks up with Jennifer. Freed from their painful relationship, Alex grows closer with Macy, and it’s incredibly endearing to watch them hang out, flirt and do kid things, like getting a frappuccino and of course spilling a little on the way to sit down.
The best parts of this film are those small moments where the detail feels so specific and just right. I’m thinking of when Alex drives to Paranoid Park, blasting hop hop, then something more somber, then nothing, then ordering two cheeseburgers at a drive-through. Or when Alex is caught at the mall by Macy and her quiet friend who are on their way to a movie. The mall is where they go like Central Perk in Friends or the diner in Seinfeld.
Van Sant does a great job of shining a bright light into these kids’ lives by showing us the right details and never giving away too much information. You can tell a lot about Alex and his friends by the purposeful nonchalance within their conversations (in which they seem to use a combined 10 different words). You can tell a lot about Alex, through his voice over, and because he blends in so well with his other skater friends, you can reasonably expect that they all are experiencing similar feelings as him, though without the murder.
A couple other notes about this film…
This is filmed in a 4:3 aspect ratio, like that of an old tv show (or Van Sant’s first film Mala Noche) as opposed to the widescreen standard for modern films (going back years). This makes the film feel very old, but it also makes the film feel homemade, like one of the kids just decided to start documenting his friend Alex. I don’t know what kind of camera was used to film this, and the only reason I hesitate to believe it was filmed on a cheap digital video recorder is just because I can’t imagine a feature film being filmed on a digital video recorder. But this film feels like it was shot on a camera you could buy at Target. In the shots of Alex writing his letter, the camera exposure occasionally jumps, so that the sky appears to blow up with pure white before settling back down to the proper exposure. This would seem to be the result of a camera on an automatic exposure setting, and feature films are never shot with automatic exposure. So that must mean it’s a choice, and I can only assume this was meant to draw your attention to the video quality. It’s as if Van Sant wanted to so immerse you in the high school/teenage experience that he made it clear this isn’t the best video quality, and the voiceover isn’t that well-written, but he dared you to like this movie anyway. And I did.
Another final note…
The Cahiers du Cinema is a film publication out of France at which many famous French filmmakers used to work (leading up to the French New Wave movement in the late 50s and 60s). The Cahier du Cinema still releases a yearly top ten list, and Paranoid Park was their number one film of 2007. I really liked this movie, but that surprised me, so I looked up their other top ten lists, and they really like Gus Van Sant, though not the films you’d expect (his first three personal films or his most critically and financially well-received films like Good Will Hunting). Gerry is number 10 in their 2002 list and somehow their 2004 list as well. Then Last Days is number 1 of 2005, Paranoid Park at number 1 for 2007, and Elephant is their number 2 film of the 2000s.
The same publication also has some surprising entries in these lists, such as Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds as the 8th best film of the 2000s, The Lady in the Water at number 6 of 2006, and Clint Eastwood’s Space Cowboys at number 9 of 2000.
So yeah, at first it seems like they might be a little all over the place, but I love it. I plan on going through these top ten lists soon. The diversity of films makes me think they have a certain distance from the films and their expectations going in, and they might be more properly able to analyze a film than we are or the Academy is. I have a lot of friends who make their year end top ten lists, and I love how diverse the range of films is, like in the case of the Cahiers du Cinema. They have art films, foreign films, horror films, comedies, etc. It’s better, in my opinion, than the Oscar-baity movies that trick us and somehow get nominated (like Hacksaw Ridge, which, that might just be me, I hate that movie).