Paranoid Park
Director: Gus Van Sant (Drugstore Cowboy, Psycho, Good Will Hunting, Finding Forrester, Elephant)
Novel: Blake Nelson
Screenplay: Gus Van Sant
Producers: David Allen Cress, Charles Gilibert, Nathanaël Karmitz, Neil Kopp
Starring: Gabe Nevins, Daniel Liu, Taylor Momsen, Jake Miller, Lauren McKinney
MPAA Rating: R
Running time: 85 min.
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reviewed by Andrew James
      In recent years, Gus Van Sant has made himself pretty inaccessible to moviegoers. Not since Finding Forrester has Van Sant made something that the general movie going public bothered to sit through. With his newest, Paranoid Park, director Van Sant has sort of gone with the in between experimental, art film and compelling drama and created one of the better films of the year that most likely, once again, will not be seen by a large number of people - unfortunately.

      Alex is one who seems to be fairly reminiscent of a typical American teenager. His troubles are normal for many kids today. Worrying about a possible divorce of his parents, a girlfriend who's interested in a first time sexual experience, an annoying little brother and the daily high school boring-ness. Alex keeps all of this at bay with his seemingly one passion: skateboarding. With his best friend Jared, they take their first leap into the semi-professional world of Paranoid Park; an exclusive skateboarding park where only the bad boys hang out. "Bad" implying not only thugs, but also high brow skateboarders that are more than a little intimidating, but also intriguing.

      With a narrative that sort of jumps around, sometimes the chronology of events can get kind of confusing, but we're aware right away of this fact as the narrator (Alex himself) is writing his memoirs of the past few days admits to the audience that he's skipping around a bit. But quite early on, we know that some sort of bloody accident happened near Paranoid Park on one of the nights Alex was there and it seems that the police might be considering Alex as a suspect in a possible foul play. It's interesting to note that we don't really know what happened that night, we just see Alex going through some heavy emotions before and after the incident and in this way we really become part of the character, so that when the reveal does happen, we're that much more invested in the impact.

      The movie is dark and brooding and the title is very apropos as not only the name of the park, but also Alex' feelings about the world around him - specifically the cop who seems to know something is awry and the stress and worry Alex has about this particular situation.

      Much like Van Sant's last venture, Elephant, high school life is depicted extremely realistically. He uses generally unknown actors and spends a lot of time focussing on mundane details of a student's life. Sitting in class, walking through the hallways, hanging out at the mall or even just looking at their face as they cruise the streets. But it seems that Van Sant has taken a lesson from his previous films and knows when to say when. We get an artist's look at the daily mundane, but he cuts it short before getting too tedious (as in the fifteen minutes of the close-up of Affleck and Damon walking in Gerry). Used correctly, as it is here, it works well in giving us a moment to reflect on what the characters are going through and gives an opportunity for sympathy. Even in the scenes in which Alex is having discussions with his mother, she is either blurred out or silhouetted or has her back to the camera. This is the type of artistic style Van Sant uses to help put us in Alex' shoes - in this case, a disconnect with his mother and her problems and worries.

      Most of the acting is terrific. Using unknowns is a big plus in lifting the believability factor. These seem like real kids in a real environment with real problems. Maybe it's the script that they're given to work with or maybe the director gives the kids free reign to just sort of behave "normally," and they're able to do that without looking flustered. The one weak spot might be the portrayal of the police officer investigating the crime. I think he's trying too hard to be real, that he ends up coming off as fake. But maybe that's just me.

      So unlike Gerry or Elephant, there isn't a dreaded sense of "is something ever going to happen?" From the get-go we're pretty intrigued with what is happening and finding ease in putting ourselves in Alex' shoes and understanding the types of feelings he's having. As is the case with Elephant, there's something sinister lurking beneath the surface of the film and we're sure that at any moment it is going to rear its ugly head; we just don't know when or how. But unlike Elephant, there are compelling moments throughout the film that keep us motivated to keep watching.

      The small drawbacks to the film are that while for the most part, Van Sant seems restrained in not giving us a 20 minute shot of a character's face, there is still a little bit of this that sometimes drags on too long. It looks nice and is interesting, but if I wanted to look at a painting, I would look at a painting. While I want my films to strike impact and linger on important characteristics, sometimes a film maker can go too far with this and there are couple of points where the tedium exceeds necessary length. But again, it's far more reserved than previous Van Sant films. Also, the ending may gnaw on a few people's brains for a while and may even be so grating that they're ultimately disappointed. Even myself, as one who loves the ending to No Country for Old Men, found myself a little disheartened that a satisfying conclusion is never really drawn out particularly well and the audience is left wondering what might've happened to the resolution.

      So all in all a compelling film with nice artistic value and some interesting, vérité styled acting. Certainly worth a re-watch, although it might be a little bit too slow for some people's tastes and the resolution is not clearly defined which could grate on one's nerves. I myself was satisfied and think the film is challenging enough for seekers of something new, but well told and interesting enough to keep main stream goers riveted.

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