EmptyCANNES -- In "Paranoid Park," Gus Van Sant enters the world of high school kids just as he did in "Elephant," achieving this time a much sharper, more focused portrait of how these rapidly maturing young people act, think, speak and behave. Of course, "Elephant" had a socio-political agenda about gun violence in schools, which divided viewers and critics. But with the Competition entry "Paranoid Park," his latest independent, low-budget experiment, he is more open to what he finds, keen to absorbing the quotidian details of one particular boy's life and of the crisis suddenly thrust upon him. So he has made one of his best movies yet, recapturing the magic of his fine earlier works such as "Mala Noche" and "Drugstore Cowboy."
Van Sant uses a cast of mostly nonprofessionals and lets his brilliant cinematographer, Christopher Doyle, shoot in a loose style, in both Super 8 and 35mm, so as to catch the moods and sensations of school kids and skateboarders. This film can go to any festival its producers so desire and should do extremely well in theatrical release both in Europe and North America.
In his script, based on a novel by fellow Portland, Ore., resident Blake Nelson, Van Sant smartly tells the story in a nonlinear form, the way a frightened kid remembers an incident that will haunt him the rest of his life. As he thinks back and tries to put things down on paper so he can make sense of the whole mess, the story tumbles out in images, evasive conversations and interrupted scenes. It is always coherent, though: The story comes to the audience almost in a stream of consciousness that makes more sense than if Van Sant had told the story in a straightforward manner.
You sense something going on inside Alex (Gabe Nevins) right away. The product of a broken home, he is going through all the conflicted emotions of any kid trying to figure out where he fits in with his peers and how he feels about his somewhat aggressive girlfriend. Yet even he says these problems don't amount to much compared with the war in Iraq or kids starving in Africa.
Yet, something else is going on, and when he is twice pulled out of class by police along with other skateboarders for questioning about a possible homicide, you know it's very bad.
It gives little away to say that Alex accidentally caused the death of an older security guard down by the railway tracks. Perhaps if his mom and dad were together, he would have had someone to talk to. As it is, he suddenly feels enormous estrangement from his buddy Jared (Jake Miller) and girlfriend Jennifer (Taylor Momsen).
He even breaks up with Jennifer abruptly, just after the two have had sex for the first time. He is then startled to find himself drawing closer to Macy (Lauren McKinney), the only person to sense something has happened to Alex. She is the one who suggests writing the experience down, as he remembers it, to help relieve the stress that is tearing him up.
Van Sant eschews wide screen to shoot the film in the so-called Academy ratio of 1:33, which of course means a much more claustrophobic frame for today's audiences. And indeed Alex's world is closing in on him as he pushes through each new day with the weight of the world on his shoulders.
In recent films, Van Sant has scrupulously -- and for some of us maddeningly -- avoided passing any judgment whether he shows a manic-depressive, drugged-up rock star stumbling through his final days before his suicide or a couple of high school boys shooting up a school. In this instance though, it makes sense to withhold judgment. You easily empathize with Alex's confusion: You see how the adult world has unwittingly closed itself off to him and how hopeless his buddies would be if he shared his dilemma.
Van Sant and Doyle use Super 8 for the skateboarding sequences that capture the reckless fluidity of that inner-city sport, often in slow motion and sometimes in wide angle. Even the 35mm sequences, while more stable, are a little more free flowing than you expect from Doyle.
As his own editor, Van Sant has composed an emotional mosaic that brings you inside Alex. As with most non-pro actors, Nevins isn't very expressive. But this plays right into his director's hands. He wants a kid who is so scared and confused he can only stare back at the world.
MK2 in association with Memo Film Co.
Screenwriter-director-editor: Gus Van Sant
Based on the novel by: Blake Nelson
Producers: Marin Karmitz, Nathanael Karmitz, David Cress, Neil Kopp
Director of photography: Christopher Doyle, Rain Kathy Li
Production designer: John Pearson-Denning
Costume designer: Chapin Simpson
Cast: Alex: Gabe Nevins
Jennifer: Taylor Momsen
Jared: Jake Miller
Detective Richard Lu: Dan Liu
Macy: Lauren McKinney
Cal: Olivier Garnier
Scratch: Scott Green
Running time -- 85 minutes
No MPAA rating