Genius Products // 2008 // 84 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Franck Tabouring (Retired) // October 7th, 2008
"I'd write a letter. Save it, send it, burn it. It just feels good to have it all out." -- Lauren McKinney
Filmmaker Gus Van Sant makes a powerful big-screen return with Paranoid Park, an intriguing and brilliantly executed portrait of a young skater who finds himself dealing with a lot more than most teenagers his age. The film picked up the 60th Anniversary Prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival, proving Van Sant still has what it takes to deliver compelling tales via simple, calm plots backed by a sophisticated direction and a gorgeous cinematography.
Based on the novel by Blake Nelson, the film introduces us to Alex (Gabe Nevins), a teenage skater who thinks school is boring, likes to hang out with his best friend Jared (Jake Miller), and wonders when he should have sex with his girlfriend Jennifer (Taylor Momsen, Gossip Girl). Like many other youngsters, Alex also struggles with his parents' divorce. He used to be able to tell his dad everything that bothered him, but here lately, he feels disconnected from home and spends most of his time outdoors.
Alex's haven is Paranoid Park, a skatepark people set up illegally to pursue their passion and have a place to skate without disturbing the neighbors or getting into too much trouble with the law. It is at Paranoid Park where Alex can take a break from everything that's bothering him. But it's also at Paranoid Park where one night, his life takes a drastic turn. Early in the film we find out Alex is somehow involved in the tragic death of a security guard who was on patrol along the train tracks close to the skatepark. Although we are not immediately told what happened, it's pretty obvious Alex knows something he does not want people to know. Over the course of the movie, we see how Alex spent the days leading up to the incident, and how he has coped with what happened.
If you've seen Van Sant's recent works Elephant and Last Days, you should have a pretty good idea of how Paranoid Park operates. Although the film may bear strong resemblance to the director's previous works in terms of story structure and looks, it is so much more powerful. What I enjoyed most about this fascinating drama is Van Sant's realistic depiction of main character Alex, a passionate skater who doesn't seem to have enough breath to cope with all the issues he encounters at once. Alex does not behave like the average teenager you see in big-budget movies these days, and that is probably because most of these bigger movies take a far too exaggerated approach to teen life.
In this film, Alex is someone who still tries to figure out how the real world works. He's not trying to get drunk or stoned every night, but he sure deals with issues many teenagers deal with at this age. The intriguing part, however, is Alex's mysterious implication in the death of the security guard. Paranoid Park certainly doesn't play out like a crime drama in which we follow detectives who try to figure out what really happened and who is responsible for what happened. Instead, we get to see and hear what goes through Alex's head. Of course we are also intrigued to know to what extent Alex is really involved in the incident, but that's not necessarily what the movie is about.
Highly interesting here is the structure of the non-linear plot. As viewers, we only see what Alex sees, and we also see what he wants us to know. Early on in the film Alex sits down and starts writing a diary or a journal. What we watch unfold on the screen is pretty much what Alex decides to write down. He also jumps back and forth in time, which leaves a lot of questions open until the end and definitely adds some extra suspense to the development of this intriguing mystery.
The film features all of Van Sant's trademarks, including his smooth, sophisticated direction, which is essential to the captivating flow of the story. Sant is one of the few directors who can create a fascinating film with a generally slow-moving plot. In the style of previous Sant films, he spends several scenes just following his actors as they walk or skate. The choice of music is odd but very diverse, serving mostly as a reflection of Alex's thoughts and feelings. Of course there is also Christopher Doyle's brilliant photography, which gives the film its irresistibly gorgeous look.
Van Sant picked mostly newcomers with hardly any or no onscreen experience, but let me tell you, some of these youngsters have great potential. Lead actor Gabe Nevins is particularly brilliant as Alex, and he simply steals every scene he's in. That makes it a lot tougher for this supporting cast, which includes Jake Miller as his friend Jared, a convincing Lauren McKinney as one of his female buddies, and Taylor Momsen, who is known for playing Jenny Humphrey on television's Gossip Girl.
The picture quality on the disc is excellent, providing a clear, sharp image that clearly helps bringing out Doyle's beautiful cinematography. The same goes to the film's solid audio transfer, which rounds out the DVD's top-notch technical aspects.
The lack of special features is the only thing I have to complain about. The quality of this edition certainly does not suffer from this all too much, but a short behind-the-scenes look would have been a nice feature to find out more about the production of this wonderful film. Heck, they could have at least included the awesome trailer. Well, better luck next time.
I absolutely loved Elephant and didn't really like Last Days all too much, but Paranoid Park is definitely a tour de force you won't forget. This is just the kind of film we need from Van Sant. More of this please!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Genius Products
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 84 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated R