The last few Gus Van Sant films that I have seen were all part of the filmmakers’ Death Trilogy, which are best characterized as plotless trips through discomfort. Elephant was like experiencing the Columbine tragedy, Last Days a pseudo re-enactment of Kurt Cobain’s demise, and Gerry a battle of attrition, both in the desert, onscreen, and in the theater, as a viewer. So, when going to see Paranoid Park, I was expecting to be somewhat uncomfortable with the trip I was about to take. But I was pleasantly surprised by where Van Sant took me this time.
A murder mystery wrapped into the life and times of a wannabe skate punk who gets caught-up in the investigation, Paranoid Park utilizes a myriad of production devices to take the viewer inside the mind of a troubled teenager. While I was expecting a meditative journey through the dark side of skateboarding, it was a surprise to get caught up in a murder mystery plot intermingled with teen skateboarder Alex’s struggle to cope with his insecurities, and what he is willing to do not to have to feel.
Alex, whose journal writing (or perhaps, letter writing) helps tell the story in narration, attends a very suburban High School with a few skaters that look-up to the freedom and unruly lifestyle of the homeless and runaway inhabitants of Paranoid Park, a skate park built underneath a city overpass in Portland, Oregon. It is obvious that Alex is a beginning skater and has some reservations about going to Paranoid Park for the first time. But his exposure to the park leaves him wanting more.
Despite being abandoned for a girl by the buddy who introduced him to Paranoid Park, Alex goes back downtown on his own at night. He sits on the sidelines until a few residents make his acquaintance, and he follows one of them, Scratch, on a freight train ride to get some beer. In the process, a security guard is killed, and Alex must deal with the impending police investigation, while also navigating the other circumstances of his life, including sex, dating, divorce, and peer pressure.
Van Sant brings his meditative style to Paranoid Park in the form of scenes of nondescript skateboarders on the streets of Portland, filmed in Super 8, that serve as kind of an escapist fantasy that Alex imagines possible. But an interesting and twisting plot brings the viewer into Alex’s life and thoughts while navigating the minefield of coming of age. Alex’s journal writings serve as both a narrative device and healing solution to deal with his insecurities and mistakes. He uses his writing as a way to deal with the crazy, messed-up things that happen in life, allowing him to finally move forward.
The acting may leave a little bit to be desired in this film, and some of the style changes in cinematography and music can be distracting, but the interesting plot, the exploration of Alex’s inner turmoil, and the redemptive message are more than enough to keep the story moving along.
The thing that "makes" the film, however, is the way Van Sant utilizes music and cinematography to allow viewers to tap into the characters’ minds. His long slow-motion tracking shots, with a myriad of different musical styles, force the viewer to stop and consider what the characters are thinking and feeling in the moment. The result is a very relatable story about the insecurities of fitting in and not understanding what to do with these feelings, especially when something goes extremely wrong as a a result of a bad decision.