Palo Alto (United States, 2013)May 15, 2014
Most films about teenagers fall into one of two categories: nihilistic tales about angst-riddled kids and saccharine-infused Hollywood confections. To its credit, Palo Alto occupies a welcome middle ground. With a loose, at times almost dreamlike style, first-time director Gia Coppola (the granddaughter of Francis Ford Coppola) utilizes a stream-of-consciousness approach to weaving her narrative. Based on a series of short stories penned by James Franco (who lends his acting talents in a supporting role), Palo Alto is light on plot and heavy on character. It's very much a slice-of-life story that does a good job italicizing how little moments in the big scheme of things can seem like monumental disasters while one is in high school.
Coppola gives us four main characters, each representing a familiar type. Individuality blooms through the details. Teddy (Jack Kilmer, the son of Val Kilmer) is a good kid who makes bad choices. Left on his own, he's smart, curious and courteous but, when paired with bad boy Fred (Nat Wolff), he undergoes a personality change. Most of the negatives in Teddy's life occur when he's under Fred's influence. Teddy pines for April (Emma Roberts), the serious, virginal girl whose attainability is in question. He dallies with an uninhibited blond named Emily (Zoe Levin) while April places him firmly in the "friend zone" and sets her sights on her soccer coach, Mr. B. (Franco). Eventually, Chrissie ends up with Fred in a combustible relationship, Teddy's rash actions earn him community service, and April discovers there's no such thing as an innocent flirtation with a teacher.
With the exception of Fred, who is drawn too broadly and comes across as a one-dimensional jerk, the characters are nicely rounded. They don't spend the entire 90 minutes wallowing in self-pity. There's a degree of self-absorption, but it isn't all-consuming. Teddy and April in particular feel real. They're like the kids who live down the street and their private dramas are believable. Palo Alto is about how they navigate the treacherous waters of a few pivotal days during their teen years.
Adults, with the notable exception of Mr. B., don't factor into the story. They're around from time-to-time. Val Kilmer makes an appearance as April's father. There's a creepy scene in which Fred's dad hangs out with Teddy. And Teddy's mother functions as his taxi driver. In general, however, anyone over the age of 21 remains in the background, which is how it is in real life with teenagers. Parents, when they register, do so predominantly as inconsequential irritants.
Coppola's famous name undoubtedly opened doors for her but she shows ability in being able to get underneath her characters' skins. The movie is never in a hurry and she allows the mood to drift. It's almost as if all the weed and booze consumed by the protagonists informs the way the story unspools. Coppola gets strong performances from her main quartet, with Emma Roberts standing out the most strongly. The director has a firm grasp of the material - at least until the end when things waver. The final intercut scenes are too obviously symbolic, with one character literally going in the wrong direction while another makes his own way.
I often feel that teenage movies pander to their audiences and, as a result, are insulting not only to the characters they portray but to those sitting in the audience. Palo Alto may not be the most exciting film about high school life to come along in the past few years, but it is among the most honest and words like "pandering" and "insulting" don't apply.
Palo Alto (United States, 2013)
Cast: : Jack Kilmer, Nat Wolff, Emma Roberts, Zoe Levin, James Franco
Screenplay: Gia Coppola, based on short stories by James Franco
Cinematography: Autumn Durald
U.S. Distributor: Tribeca Film