Hot Docs: Teenage Paparazzo Review

Teenage Paparazzo

If you thought Adrian Grenier’s role on the HBO series Entourage blurred the line between fiction and reality in strange and amusing ways, well, you ain’t seen nothing yet. When he’s not busy playing movie star Vincent Chase, Grenier has been making a name for himself as a documentary director and producer over the past decade. In 2002, he filmed a personal road trip to meet his father for the first time, turning it into the feature-length documentary Shot in the Dark. His follow-up project, Teenage Paparazzo, finds him turning the camera outward to focus on someone else, while simultaneously drawing on his own unique celebrity status.

When a precocious 13-year-old kid catches him off guard one day by unexpectedly snapping a photograph instead of merely asking for an autograph, Grenier is intrigued. Upon discovering that the kid actually does this on a regular basis and competes with many of the professional paparazzi in Hollywood, Grenier feels compelled to investigate further. By tagging along with young Austin Visschedyk and putting a camera on him, his initial goal is to understand the role that paparazzi play, and also to possibly get Austin to re-evaluate his naive obsession. Ultimately, however, the journey leads him even further, from manipulating the media to questioning the very nature of celebrity and fame itself. The result is an accessible yet multi-layered documentary that makes for a fun watch, even if it doesn’t necessarily answer many of the big questions that it purports to tackle.

Although the film’s title seems to indicate that the majority of screen time will be devoted to Austin, it doesn’t quite work out that way. Grenier is a part of the story from the very start (for obvious reasons), and he makes no effort to hide behind the camera or remain a passive observer. He jumps right into the action, prodding Austin for answers, and even going so far as to buy a camera of his own to try and pass himself off as a pap. It is precisely Grenier’s involvement that allows for the various role reversals that occur and the dizzying spirals of self-reflection. (At times, this documentary feels like the on-screen equivalent of an M.C. Escher drawing.)

While Grenier is probably the main draw to the film for a lot of people, he is also what holds it back from fully succeeding. His motives are called into question multiple times throughout the film, and it’s hard not to think that he is pushing things in a direction that he has already predetermined. It’s also impossible to forget that he’s coming from the point of view of a celebrity, and that he is an actor who is trying to make a piece of entertainment here. Some of his clever schemes don’t really pay off (the fake Paris Hilton scandal, for example), and some of the interview subjects seem a bit self-indulgent (as fun as they were, the interviews with the Entourage cast members felt a bit out of place). Still, he is a likeable and charismatic guy, and comes across as genuinely curious, even if his relationship with Austin is somewhat vague.

Later in the film, Grenier delves deeper than one might expect, by interviewing various university professors and media experts about the psychology behind celebrity worship. This leads to a particularly memorable exchange with Henry Jenkins at a baseball game, where Grenier is approached by a fan mid-interview, and is also featured on the stadium’s giant video screen. Although some of the academic talk is interesting, it starts to feel like a regurgitated university textbook, and detours from the main storyline with Austin for a little too long.

Austin, for his part, is about as fascinating as a 13-year-old can be. That is to say, he is cute and funny, and his skills are impressive for his age, but he can also be obnoxious and self-centered and rarely has anything particularly deep to say about what’s going on around him. His perceived innocence does allow for some slightly more candid footage of other paparazzi photographers who take him under their wing, however. One interesting thing that comes up is the issue of parenting, and whether or not his parents are right to allow him to come and go as he pleases at all hours of the night. It’s not explored as much as it could have been, but at least it is addressed. Austin’s own rise to fame is also an intriguing element of the story, even if his reaction is somewhat predictable.

The movie uses some split screen techniques to try and spice up the presentation, but at times it comes off a bit amateurish. Generally speaking, though, the movie flows well and generates a good mix of humourous and thought-provoking moments. The conclusion isn’t all that satisfying since Austin’s story doesn’t really have an end, and no major revelations are made, but I suppose a feedback loop like this can be infinite and a decision had to be made to cut it off somewhere. Teenage Paparazzo will air on HBO sometime later this year, and when it does, it is well worth checking out. At the very least, it proves that Vinnie Chase may have a future as a director when his Aquaman fame finally fades for good.