Gus Van Sant has had a very interesting if not always successful decade. Ever since he made Finding Forrester in 2000 he’s abandoned mainstream cinema and started experimenting with a new style of cinema. This style involved long takes, improvisational dialogue, and minimal exposition. The style began with 2002’s Gerry about a hiking trip gone wrong which starred Matt Damon and Casey Affleck. Van Sant further evolved the style in 2003’s Elephant, the first film to deal with the columbine massacre, which abandoned the use of professional actors. Elephant was probably the most successful Van Sant movie of this period; it was widely acclaimed and won the Palm D’or at the Cannes Film Festival. Van Sant followed Elephant up with Last Days, a fictionalized account of the death of Curt Cobain, a pretentious and boring film I had no patience for. Now Van Sant has further evolved his style with Paranoid Park.
The film follows a teenager named Alex (Gabe Nevins) involved in a skateboarding sub-culture. Alex spends a lot of time going to an underground skate park called “Paranoid Park” where he meets a lot of people who are deeper into this world then he is. However, this isn’t one of those movies about the dangers of some youth sub-culture, in fact that’s really just the background to the larger story. I don’t want to give away too much, but a security guard has been murdered (this is revealed very early on) and Alex clear had something to do with the crime.
The common theme among all these experimental Gus Van Sant films has been internalized emotion, something that’s very true to life. The films do not try to emphasize with their subjects, only to watch them. As such these are some particularly voyeuristic pieces of work. Gerry was about internalized desperation, Elephant was about internalized rage, and Last Days was about internalized depression. Paranoid Park also fits well into this theme as it’s about internalized guilt. Alex clearly feels really bad about his part in the death of this security guard but he doesn’t completely brake down in some sort of Oscar bait tantrum, instead the film shows him trying to go on with his usual life in spite of the weight on his shoulders. The film is all about watching how he reacts to the situation, watching the subtle nuances of his reactions.
The film is populated entirely by non-professional actors that Van Sant reportedly found on Myspace; these non-actors bring a definite realism to the film. Firstly, everyone is the correct age, you’ll find no 28 year olds playing teenagers. More impotently they’re able to feel like normal young people, they’re more qualified to convey the uncertainties and insecurities that plague people at this age. Gabe Nevins was a good find, he has a lot to do here, and he makes it work. The supporting actors are also good, Taylor Momsen is very good as Alex’s girlfriend and Jake Miller is also good as his friend.
The visual style does have a lot in common with the last three films, it has a deliberately down to earth and somewhat murky look. It has more in common with the bluish urban hues of Elephant than the more rustic looks of Gerry or Last Days. The film is shot in Academy ratio color 35mm for most of its duration and uses very messy 8mm color film during a few seemingly disconnected skateboard scenes.
Bu there are also stylistic differences from the last films Van Sant has made. The long takes are reduced significantly and the film also uses a non chronological structure. This structure seems random, but that isn’t to say there’s no rhyme or reason to it. The chronology is clearly planned but there’s not a rigid pattern to it. This is one of the film’s more enjoyable aspects; it’s interesting how seemingly confusing scenes are shown twice and the audiences perceptions of the same moments change so much based on context.
While on the last few films Van Sant was clearly experimenting with visuals, here he actually seems more interested in experimenting with sound. The music choices all seem very strange, they don’t seem to fit but they do contribute to a certain mood. The film also has a voice over, which is something that would have no place in any of the other movies in this style series. But this isn’t like many voice overs, it’s supposed to be a reading of a confessionary note he’s writing to himself, so the grammar at times deliberately feels clunky and often the voice over really raises more questions than it answers. There are also some odd sound mixing quirks, like one scene where Alex’s jumbled thoughts can be heard on the sound track, each coming from a different surround channel. Not all of this works of course, that’s the nature of experimentation really.
One could complain that the film’s subject matter seems a little dated. Skateboarding was a pretty pre-millennial phenomenon, which may not seem like long ago to adults, but the film’s star was about eight years old at the turn of the century. Of course there are still skate boarders out there, but this still doesn’t seem like it’s on the cutting edge of youth culture. That said, most of the rest of the depictions of youth culture do ring true. Most of the slang and dialogue patterns are accurate and up to date, it’s not elegant or overwritten, but it does sound real.
Experimenting is not an easy thing to do, and it doesn’t always bring optimal results, but somebody has to do it. Gus Van Sant is clearly narrowing in on a style that really will work, but he’s still not quite there. This is a lot better than Last Days, but it doesn’t quite live up to the heights of Elephant, or even Gerry. Still, there is a lot of interesting material here, I encourage Gus Van Sant to keep experimenting and I can recommend this film to adventurous cinema goers.
*** out of four