Gus Van Sant’s study of teenage alienation and anxiety, based on a novel by Blake Nelson, is set in Portland, where Alex is trying to come to terms with his parents’ impending divorce, the demands of his relationship with his girlfriend Jennifer, and his own need to be accepted by his peers.
His story is not presented through the conventional cinematic techniques of a thriller, but by Van Sant’s trademark use of dream-like sequences and extended shots that track Alex as he makes his way through the hallways at school, or the mall . Unlike a routine thriller, this film refuses to provide a clear resolution concerning Alex’s future. Van Sant’s choice of non-actors to play the characters, and the carefully-composed visual style are reminiscent of his earlier work, Elephant.
Alex is a skateboarder who strays from home territory to hang out with the 'hard-core freaks' in the park of the title. One night he hops a freight train for kicks but is spotted by a guard. When the guard hits him with a torch, Alex retaliates with his skateboard and accidentally knocks the guard into the path of an oncoming train. The results are catastrophic for Alex, who has to deal with his responsibility for the man’s gruesome death on top of everything else in his life.
The film came to the BBFC for classification in 2007, having won the 60th Anniversary Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in the same year.
The main issue for classification lay in the images of the accident – the first presented as a police photograph shown to Alex and other skateboarders in school as the investigation gets under way.
This is a still image of the lower half of a man’s corpse neatly severed at the waist, and has considerable impact, as the reactions of the skaters reveal. Even stronger is the medium shot of the victim’s severed body, the upper half briefly crawling along, trailing entrails. This is the image that we see from the horrified viewpoint of Alex. While this image is shocking, it accords with the BBFC Guidelines for horror at 15 which state that 'The strongest gory images are unlikely to be acceptable'. While the scene is brief and striking, it is surprisingly bloodless, and the emphasis is on the dying man’s eyes as he looks up at Alex. The film’s BBFCinsight warns that the film contains 'Brief images of strong gore'.
Strong language also features in the film, but there are only two uses and they are not aggressive or directed at an individual, and so are acceptable at 12A under the Guidelines.
A brief sex scene between Alex and Jennifer is managed very discreetly, with only the impression that she is moving astride him in close-up visuals that conceal any detail. Like the language, the sex would attract a 12A classification.
Other minor issues are some moderate language and sex references in a rap lyric and also in conversations about and with Jennifer, as Alex’s sexual relationship with her is discussed.
Paranoid Park was passed 15 and selected for National Schools Film week 2008.