Dir. Gus Van Sant
Premiered at Cannes May 21, 2007
Note: this review expands upon one that I wrote after first seeing the film in 2013.
On May 14, 2007, the AV Club released an inventory of films that defined the decades in which they were made. A lot of the choices are debatable– as far as I’m concerned, the defining movie of the 1970s isn’t Nashville, but Dog Day Afternoon. But more egregiously, their choice for the 2000s was Spike Lee’s 25th Hour. At the time, the shadow of 9/11 loomed large, but in retrospect, it seemed a shortsighted pick: 9/11 shaped the decade, yes, but in unexpected ways, and for my money, no film captured that more perfectly than Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival exactly one week after that Inventory was written.
The plot is paper-thin, but still incredibly dark: based on a novel by Blake Nelson, Paranoid Park tells the story of Alex (Gabe Nevins), a reticent teen skater who ventures alone to a dangerous underground skate park and is implicated in a gruesome murder. There are parts of this film that echo the lower echelons of art cinema. A sex scene recalls a more restrained Larry Clark, while there are long, pointless silences and audio experiments that bring back traumatic memories of Van Sant’s earlier film Gerry.
But Van Sant’s attention to detail is the biggest draw. Coming off his “Trilogy of Death,” Paranoid Park is a textbook example of the Instant Period Piece, a work that so perfectly and meticulously captures the era in which it was made that its datedness becomes its greatest strength. The bad skater hair, the girls dressed as ring-tailed lemurs, the little brother reciting lines from Napoleon Dynamite– everything about the movie screams “2000s,” and the sooner you realize that, the more enjoyable the film becomes.
It also nails adolescence more generally. As someone who actually was a teenager in the 2000s (and looked almost exactly like the main character), this movie’s depiction is eerie. The drab emptiness and boredom that comes with growing up but not having an outlet with all of the emotion, confusion, and directionlessness is fully on display. The only other film I’ve seen deal with that aspect of adolescence also came out in 2007, but it’s a very different film, and we’ll get to that soon enough.
Signs This Was Made in 2007
How Did It Do?
I first saw Paranoid Park in film school, where I was definitely the only person besides my professor who found any significance in it, a reception that has not at all changed since it debuted at Cannes. The film was picked up for distribution by the cable television outfit IFC and made just $4.5 million worldwide. But it did get a 76% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes, with a lot of the critics writing that they were just kinda hypnotized by it like I was.
I’ve often wondered why Van Sant’s “Trilogy of Death” isn’t considered a tetralogy with Paranoid Park as the fourth installment, but whatever. Van Sant had taken a long break from mainstream fare, and henceforth returned to Hollywood again like he’d never left, quickly releasing the 2008 biopic Milk.
Next Time: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly