Dear Paranoid Park,
The modern world can be a frightening place for a teenager. Social mores among the high school set creates a labyrinthine maze of dangers to navigated; rising divorce rates and working sets of parents mean that previously relied upon adult influences are relegated to teachers, cops, and other authoritarian figures; culture imposes upon them a series of demands that are misinformed and dangerous. The effect of all of these and many other elements is alienating, isolating, and corrosive to one’s internal moral and social compass. How do we know what to do or how to act when the world is intent both on putting us under the spotlight while at the same time shunning us as an ‘other?’
Alex, the pensive, guilt-ridden protagonist of your tale, must struggle to navigate all of these pitfalls and presumptions while at the same time searching for a proper outlet for his mounting sense of confusion and guilt regarding his part in a fatal accident. This is a story that could have been told in broad, histrionic strokes; of shrieking and crying mingled with overly-eloquent and wholly artificial dialogue. Yet you have the courage and patience to provide more nuance and veracity.
Our story unfolds in a roundabout way, narrated by Alex as he writes his stark, unvarnished confession into the pages of a flimsy notebook. His handwriting is a mangled kind of half-calligraphy – certain letters containing the extra flourish of someone who seeks to make a personal stamp on his words. The bulk of his writing, however, is a halfhearted scrawl, barely conforming to the lines on the paper. His dialogue and narration follows in much the same way, a halting and staggered compilation of incomplete and mis-articulated thoughts, all of them circling a basic truth that he is still struggling to speak aloud or take responsibility for.
Alex has a girlfriend who he might care about, or who might just fulfill some sort of prerequisite for high school success. He has a broken home and a needy younger brother. He has a friend who thinks nothing of bailing on him to pursue a sure thing. He also has a love of skateboarding, which takes him to the storied titular Paranoid Park, a skate park conceived and built by the older skate punks who frequent it. Paranoid allows him to immerse himself in something comfortable and familiar, yet in an environment dangerous and alien enough to serve as a substitute for growth.
Taken in by an older skater, Alex decides to hop a train for fun, and an altercation with a security guard leaves the guard dead and Alex with blood on his hands. The ways in which the stress of this secret, of the burgeoning sense of guilt and responsibility, acts on Alex is the backbone of your story.
Using non-professional actor Gabe Nevins to play Alex is a masterstroke, allowing for the truth of the situation to win out over any actor-driven pretensions toward grandeur or theatricality. This grounding of the character is especially necessary given the swirling, dreamlike tone of the direction and camera work on display. The action slows down occasionally as the soundtrack fills with a tinkling sound not unlike wind chimes as we are given the kind of hyper-attentive gaze that Alex bestows on a world that is still just coming into focus for him. This effect not only applies to his girlfriend, who is constantly given the linger ethereal treatment, but his real focus is obviously in the angelic gliding of the skaters of Paranoid Pard. You are a beautiful film to behold, and that beauty is only further accentuated by the uncomfortably unpracticed acting of your young cast.
What is most special about you, Paranoid Park, is your sense of purpose and the way in which you shy away from creating the kind of pat narrative trap that could turn you into just another melodramatic movie. Alex’s journey isn’t so much about doing the right thing or putting the world right again as it is about the internal journey that he must make to at least come to terms with his actions. There are no grand speeches, no monologued lessons delivered to a room full of awed spectators. There is just one boy, growing up in a confusing world, trying to make one more piece of his seemingly uncontrollable life fit into place.
This is a simple story, but a complex idea, and you pull it off marvelously. You are a far quieter and simpler film than many other still-wonderful films that tackle similar stories, and in its own way that marks you out as singular among the field.
With awed respect,
Brian J. Roan