The curiosity attracted by a “Teenage Paparazzo” as driven as any adult snapper yields a tricky helmer-subject relationship, celebrities discussing celebrity, and sophisticated musings on the ever-escalating American obsession with fame in Adrian Grenier’s excellent feature. This is Grenier’s second full-length docu behind (and in front of) the camera, and its behind-the-glitz peeks, human drama and sharp guiding intelligence should get it wider exposure than his first, 2002’s “Shot in the Dark.” Whether that will translate to niche theatrical release or a straight path to cable — the helmer’s principal employer, HBO, would be the natural fit — remains to be seen.
Grenier begins by describing his own “really weird” experience as the object of paparazzi attention, since what he’s famous for is playing a movie star who draws just such attention, on a TV series (“Entourage”) that satirizes the world of modern Hollywood celebrity. One night out, blinded as usual by flashlights, he was struck by the presence of a towheaded little boy, 13-year-old Austin Visschedyk, among the most aggressive career “paps.”
Wanting to explore that profession (the word actually comes from the Italian one for “mosquito”), he befriended Visschedyk. At an age when most kids only daydream about the Jonas Brothers and Miley Cyrus, the Hollywood native is actively chasing them for stolen photo ops, dashing between moving cars at 3 a.m. for shots that might net him up to $2,000.
He’s clearly talented, as well as amazingly precocious (and foul-mouthed). Though questions are certainly begged: Is this anything for a 13-year-old to be doing? Shouldn’t he be at school? (He’s home-schooled.) Where’s the parental supervision? (His mostly supportive mom and mildly disapproving dad, who live separately, are bullied by their son into exerting almost no disclipinary control.)
In exchange for actually hanging out with a celebrity, Visschedyk becomes Grenier’s own subject, as well as his guide to the frantic, high-stakes, adrenaline rush of paparazzi work. At first the adult photogs are highly suspicious, thinking the star only wants to make them look bad — which would be easy. But the helmer goes to great lengths to understand their profession, even taking a stab at ambush-shutterbugging fellow celebs himself, and interviewing prominent targets such as Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton.
Of course, many have negative feelings about such constant invasion — something the paps rather resentfully believe is the natural tradeoff for wealth and fame — though several allow that Visschedyk is so “cute” they don’t mind him so much. But when the teen’s novelty begins to attract media beyond Grenier’s own film crew, Grenier starts to worry he’s helped create a monster.
Pic also brings in fans, psychologists, historians, tabloid editors and more to explore our absorption in “parasocial relationships”: identifying, whether via sympathy or snickers, with public figures whose character and problems we only “know” through TV or tabloids. (Stats note the average American now spends 6 1/2 hours communicating not with live people, but with media — not including cell phones.)
Covering a wide range of material and ideas in engaging fashion, “Teenage Paparazzo” reps a triumph of organization for Grenier and editor Jim Curtis Mol. Lensing is all over the map, from high-grade HD to grainy on-the-run footage.