It is hard to believe that film has become an art form lasting long enough to support three generations of a burgeoning cinematic dynasty. But here we are with Gia Coppola, granddaughter of Francis and niece to Sofia and Roman, making her directorial debut in this year’s teen collage of suburban angst, Palo Alto. And it’s a relief to say that some of the same filmic finesse is present in this enjoyable if appropriately aimless look at the adolescent wasteland of youth.
Based on a short story collection of the same name by James Franco, who published these musings after his own Silicon Valley childhood in 2010, the movie has an apathetic sincerity about the vices and distractions of youthfulness. Franco himself originally considered directing an adaptation before being impressed by 20-something Coppola’s still photography art. And given the comparison to Franco’s own recent directorial efforts, we are probably all the better for this passage of helming duties. By stringing together Franco’s disparate and bemusing literary yarns about growing up in the Northern California ‘burbs, Coppola makes an engrossing, if somewhat aloof picture with her first talented bow.
Palo Alto centers on four high school kids whose lives all intersect via friendship, romance, or lust, but ultimately inform different perspectives of the American teenager experience. There is Teddy (Jack Kilmer), who is a fresh-faced slacker that passively lets his life be dictated to him by circumstance and his abrasive best friend Fred (Nat Wolff). As a boy who was born on the wrong side of the tracks from an oddball father (an amusing cameo by Chris Messina), Fred is the kind of permanently frustrated young man who at 17 already knows his life is going to end in disappointment. And with a little push, perhaps Teddy’s will too when he is caught in a DUI by his mate instead of staying at the party with his not-so-secret crush, April.
April (Emma Roberts) is also going through her own drama as the star soccer player at her high school and the apple of her coach’s eye. But that eye makes things very confusing, not to mention skeevy, when Mr. B (James Franco), a single dad who April also babysits for, starts making moves on his teacher’s pet with one kiss, and then another. Finally, there is Emily (Zoe Levin), the most fleeting and interesting character in the movie.
Palo Alto is a fractured mosaic of the ritualized anxiety all adolescents face. Indeed, Coppola seems very aware of the familiar territory she has crossed by presenting her characters in a world where Phoebe Cates’ immortalized scene from Fast Times at Ridgemont High is both still adored and knowingly mocked by the more realistically girlish April—an irony, considering that Cates was actually a teenager in that film while Roberts is 23.
On the whole, Coppola strives for an authenticity not often found in the teen subgenre, which is reflected in her mostly juvenile cast. This decision can lead to some mixed results since Jack Kilmer, the 19-year-old son of actor Val Kilmer, believably sells the anguish of Teddy, but stumbles in creating a persona beyond that raw agony of capricious hormones. But conversely, Wolff fairs much better by demonstrating once again that he is a young actor to watch. He was by far the best thing about last year’s Stuck in Love, and the 20-year-old actor (who was 19 during production on Palo Alto), creates a startlingly engrossing portrait of a growing man-child filled with pent up anger at the world. He might be in the closet, but is ultimately too emotionally circuitous to fully read. It is a great realization of that guy everyone knew in school, and one that Coppola and company will likewise try to distance themselves from by the end credits.
One of Fred’s outbursts comes at the repeated expense of Levin’s Emily, a composite character of several personalities in Franco’s book. In the movie, we never spend enough time with her to get a full handle on the character, which may be why she is so intriguing and lingers longer than others. As the (too) easy-going good time girl at her high school, Emily lets herself be used and abused by several boys throughout the film, but is given remarkable empathy and compassion by Coppola who idles on her bedroom set during the one time Fred is invited over for a visit. Still littered with the toys, animals, and sparkling iconographies of childhood, Emily is meant to be a sympathetic ode to the suburban princess that isn’t ready for adult decisions, leading to her making the worst kind. Levin uses her limited screen time well, and one wishes Coppola could explore this obvious interest further.
In the movie’s biggest claim to pop culture awareness at the moment, Franco has an artistic moment that may have gone on to imitate life when his chosen role of Mr. B seduces his 17-year-old student with the creep factor turned up to 11. Obviously, hindsight makes it an interesting choice for the actor (if the social media story is indeed a real one), however it is treated as a chance for Franco to participate in his stories from a very different perspective than the original author of the material. Roberts also gives a more nuanced and layered performance than most of the cast as April, a young woman who is presented to be very bright. However, the movie could have done more to develop April’s consequentially stupid decisions around her sketchy teacher, as all of the character’s actions are left to Roberts’ inversed and expressive eyes.
Palo Alto is a respectable first film with a few notable performances that gives a stimulating, but detached view of a time when everyone felt removed at arm’s length from their peers. The narrative is not entirely coherent or conclusively satisfying, as the short story source material is still evident in the way certain scenes or characters fail to develop upon intriguing foundations. However, it is a forthright and undeniable account of a certain age. Plus, it features the disembodied voice of Grandfather Francis Ford as an omnipotent judge midway through the picture. Like the passionate forces of that age, it is hard to resist that vocal presence or the movie at large.