“Milk” wasn’t the only movie Gus Van Sant put out this past year. Early on in 2008, he wrote and directed the little seen “Paranoid Park.” It is a slight masterwork of beautiful cinematography and scattered chronological storytelling.
With “Paranoid Park,” Van Sant returns back to the lush pacific northwest in Portland, Oregon. It centers around skateboarder teenager Alex (Gabe Nevins). Like Harvey Milk, Mike Waters, and Bob from Van Sant’s previous films, Alex lives on the outside edges of society and reality. He scribbles down his current story in a diary. He doesn’t know whether he’ll live another day or be free tomorrow, but all that we and him know is that he accidently killed a man. We just know this but we don’t know how or why. “Paranoid Park” uses Alex’s journal as a guiding voice as it shuffles through the events that lead to this murder and how it effected Alex and everyone around him.
“Paranoid Park” is most like Van Sant’s 1991 masterpiece “My Own Private Idaho.” It has no clear narrative structure and switches between the clear present, and grainy memories. He seems to switch in and out of consciousness and its barely clear whether or not he’s even conscious the whole time. Is the real. Or just some vivid nightmares from the mind of a sleeping teenager?
Unlike Van Sant’s previous films set in Portland, “Paranoid Park” shows a more positive view of the city. It takes place in picturesque suburban neighborhoods rather than the cities junkie infested decaying slums. However, Alex barely stays in this area and would rather be in Paranoid Park, the skate park from which the film takes its name. A place where troubled teens go to escape and a place that would soon lead to a horrific tragedy.
“Paranoid Park” is not the kind of movie for those who like clear conclusions traditional narrative structure. Despite this basic outline, the movie is plotless. And I don’t mean to say that in a negative way. Roger Ebert once noticed that sometimes it’s not what it’s about but how it’s about. I never fully understood that but you can apply it here. The movie is not really about what happens physically as a result of this murder and how it will be resolved but how it affects Alex emotionally and very subtlety scars the lives of everyone he knows. This film is not about overcoming guilt, it’s about how it twists your perception of reality if you hide it too long.
Despite its stunning capturing of the Portland landscape and story that allows you to put the puzzle pieces together for yourself, “Paranoid Park” is not without its many flaws. The story sometimes gets off track and can get a bit meandering at times. It really goes nowhere when there could’ve been much more. But maybe it was supposed to be like that. After all, isn’t that what being a teenager is all about: wandering aimlessly, not knowing where you’re headed next, and just waiting for something big to happen and take you somewhere, anywhere?