Gabe Nevins, Dan Liu, Jake Miller / Fiction / English
Heartstoppingly beautiful, close-up confession, from the most creatively ambitious of US directors.
Having mastered strung-out hipster ennui (Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho), high-camp satire (Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, To Die For), inspirational fables of achievement (Good Will Hunting, Finding Forrester), and one highly controversial remake (Psycho), Gus Van Sant has moved into a new and fascinating phase. He befuddled fans of golden boy Matt Damon by stranding him in the desert for the oblique, existential buddy movie Gerry. He scored an unconventional double victory at Cannes in 2003, taking both the Palme d’Or and the Best Director prize for his startling, beautiful meditation on the Columbine high school massacre, Elephant. There followed another radical interpretation of real-life tragedy: the experimental Kurt Cobain eulogy Last Days.
Paranoid Park builds on the qualities that distinguished those last few works: the looping time frames, the piercing sense of sadness, the delicate humour and the layered sound and visual design. Yet despite its formal experimentation and its melancholy tone, this is also an emotionally direct, frequently very funny exploration of the effects of a single unimaginable disaster upon a single ordinary life. Based upon the novel by Blake Nelson, the story follows a young skateboarder, Alex (Gabe Nevins), who’s not a charismatic misfit, nor an angry loner, just a gentle, appealing, low-key kid. The clan to which he adheres is that of the skater, although his actual boarding is nothing special; indeed, when his friend suggests a trip to the legendary skate park Paranoid Park, Alex protests that he’s not ready. Little does he know how true that is. When he does pay a visit there, a chance encounter gets him into a degree of trouble for which he could never have prepared himself.
The tragic breaking point is rendered in an authentically offhand and shocking manner: as in real-life trauma, the moment itself passes fleetingly, and its true meaning takes time to settle. It’s this ability to sink into a character’s subjective experience – to truthfully and compassionately convey the nuances of his characters’ emotions to his audience – that sets Van Sant’s filmmaking apart. He’s aided here by stunning cinematography by the great Christopher Doyle and his frequent collaborator Rain Kathy Li, and extraordinary sound design by Leslie Shatz. Though its story is highly specific and defiantly small in scale, Paranoid Park can also be read – like Elephant – as a sad-eyed allegory for the whole experience of growing up: the inevitable encroachment, post-puberty, of pain, dread and moral culpability. It’s not a defeated or depressive film, however: Van Sant’s rapt attention to emotional detail is in itself a sort of celebration. Even in the midst of great sadness, his work gratefully acknowledges human complexity, resilience and vulnerability, as well as the eternal hope of redemption.
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