Gus Van Sant is one of the few directors who have successfully managed to keep one foot in the mainstream and the other in the art house, balancing the likes of “Good Will Hunting” and his bizarre “Psycho” remake with smaller scale and more personal projects. His last few films, including “Last Days” and his Cannes winner “Elephant” have seen him exploring the disaffected and disconnected American youth, a theme he continues with his latest effort “Paranoid Park”, released now on Blu ray through Tartan.
Based upon a novel by Blake Nelson, the film follows Alex (newcomer Gabe Nevins), a young skateboarder dealing with the usual teen angst issues while trying to fit in at the hip titular hangout. Unfortunately, one night while fooling around on the train tracks with some newfound friends, he is involved in the tragic and gruesome death of a security guard. From then on, his life begins to deteriorate, as he has to deal not only with the investigating police, but also with his own guilt and growing fear.
Although “Paranoid Park” does have a plot of sorts to hold the drama together, like most of Van Sant’s films of the past few years it works more as a meandering piece of cinematic poetry. Despite the premise, the film is oddly passive, with suspense building up naturally as the police appear to be closing in on Alex and as his own conscience begins to trouble him. This certainly gives the proceedings a more authentic air, as does Van Sant’s feel for youth and skate culture, and it does help the viewer to see the film through Alex’s eyes, never being quite sure whether or not the hammer is going to fall. On the other hand, the film arguably lacks any real kind of narrative drive, something that may make it feel rather light and tangential for those unwilling to simply go with the flow. Indeed, as things progress, Van Sant seems to lose interest in the plot itself, and predictably enough the film doesn’t come to any kind of satisfying conclusion, with everyday life slowly taking over from the murder investigation. Still, it remains interesting throughout, drifting along in a grimly ambient fashion, and his disjointed approach to storytelling makes for occasionally challenging and vaguely abstract viewing.
Van Sant’s direction is naturalistic and intimate, and the film has an almost documentary like feel at times, working in digital video and camcorder footage. The skateboarding scenes are captured gracefully, and though they don’t really play much part in the film, they do help to add a certain artistic flair. Probably the best thing about the film is the excellent performances from the young and inexperienced cast, most of who were apparently recruited from MySpace. Nevins makes for a sympathetic and intriguing protagonist, and although he remains somewhat blank and distant, deliberately so, his narration works well in the context.
The Blu ray quality is excellent, and the increased resolution serves nicely to highlight the differences between the various video formats employed by Van Sant. Although perhaps not an obvious contender for the format, the film is one that relies upon its visuals not only to reflect its mood and the troubled psychology of its protagonist, but more importantly to tell its story. As such, the enhanced clarity really helps by adding a further sense of realism, and by bringing the characters’ faces into sharper focus it makes the film a more immersive experience.
“Paranoid Park” is very much representative of Van Sant’s recent work, and although perhaps not as poignant as “Elephant” is an excellent piece of low key film making which stands as a much see for fans. For viewers new to his work, it offers a welcome alternative to the usual kind of Hollywood teen angst dramas and thrillers, being believable and genuine, if not exactly thrilling.
Gus Van Sant (director) / Gus Van Sant (screenplay), Blake Nelson (novel)
CAST: Gabe Nevins … Alex
Daniel Liu … Detective Richard Lu
Taylor Momsen … Jennifer
Jake Miller … Jared
Lauren McKinney … Macy
Winfield Jackson … Christian
Joe Schweitzer … Paul