by Kathie Smith
With names like Gia Coppola and James Franco attached to Palo Alto, a movie about the volatile emotional landscape of high school, it would be tempting to categorize it as one of the popular kids—admirably confident but predictably superficial. That rush to judgment, while not totally inaccurate, would nonetheless be selling short this impressive first feature. Coppola pulls her film out of this clichéd corner of privileged teenage ennui with a surprising amount of affecting verve (thanks to the two young leads) and gives us a 20-year update to the callous cruelty and naked innocence exhibited in Larry Clark’s Kids.
Director: Gia Coppola
Producers: Vince Jolivette, Miles Levy, Sebastian Pardo, Adriana Rotaru
Writers: Gia Coppola, James Franco (short stories)
Cinematographer: Autumn Durald
Music: Robert Schwartzman
Editor: Leo Scott
Cast: Emma Roberts, Jack Kilmer, Nat Wolff, Zoe Levin, James Franco, Olivia Crocicchia, Claudia Levy, Val Kilmer, Jacqui Getty, Andrew Lutheran
Premiere: August 29, 2013 – Telluride Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: May 9, 2014
US Distributor: Tribeca Film
Set in an insular lily-white community—perhaps Palo Alto, perhaps not—a group of disenfranchised high school students seem to leap frog from one crazed house party to the next with only minor school and family interludes. As drinking, smoking, sex, and general depravity rule the day, Palo Alto zeros in on shy stoner Teddy (Jack Kilmer, Val’s son) and awkward but beautiful April (Emma Roberts). Teddy silently pines for April, but inevitable mixed messages and his inability to communicate his feelings rebuff April’s reciprocated affections. Meanwhile, April is both flattered and alarmed by the attention from her soccer coach Mr. B (James Franco), a single dad for whom she babysits as well.
Subtle epiphanies and juvenile calamities play out in a series of in-the-moment vignettes that are not overly concerned about the past or the future, nor, thankfully, moral judgment. After a drunken hit-and-run, Teddy lands some community service and, in the words of the judge, one more chance to turn his life around. Teddy’s friend Fred (Nat Wolff) irreverently uses eager-to-please but unpopular classmate Emily (Zoe Levin) for sex, his insincerity likely masking deeper fears. And April succumbs to Mr. B’s false seductions, finding out only too late that he is no more than a manipulator. All the while, the dangers of aggression and erratic hormones lie just below the surface of suburban monotony.
The lack of parental guidance, like a number of other things in Palo Alto, overtly exists to make an unnecessary statement about the void in these kids’ lives. In the case of April, her step-dad (a hilarious Val Kilmer) spends his time getting high and playing video games while her loving mother is filled with California pretension to a fault. As a matter of fact, most of the adults act with a certain level of immaturity, as if to induce a “no wonder” reaction. And it’s moments like this where Coppola loses her knack for nuanced storytelling and over-defines her characters in order to prove a point. In a similar way, April’s friends are placidly superficial to make the case for April’s more textured individuality.
With a promise to help April with her homework, Mr. B simplistically instructs her on how to write a history report: you choose an event and just tell why it happens. April retorts by pointing out that explaining why something happens is not so easy: “I do things all the time for no reason.” Mr. B tosses her equivocal debate aside with the reasoning that she is young and doesn’t yet understand why she does things. The conversation is bluntly on the nose about acknowledging that adulthood means thinking you know the answer to “why,” but it rings true mostly to Roberts’ credit.
Emma Roberts perfectly captures not only April’s innocence but also the innocence of being a teenage girl and attempting to navigate what she wants and what the world expects of her. It’s hard not to gravitate toward a discussion about Gia and her aunt Sofia, especially given the feeling that Palo Alto excels where The Bling Ring fails, in the emotional cache department. Perhaps one-dimensionality was part of Sofia’s point, but Palo Alto shows how you can temper the veneer with something much more poignant. The inspired soundtrack, which includes Blood Orange, Devonte Hynes, and Die Antwoord effortlessly segues with the drama, creating a vibe rather than any sort of proclamation.
Based on a collection of short stories written by none other than James Franco, Palo Alto easily jumps the first hurdle of eclipsing Franco and his ubiquitous persona. Gia Coppola’s movie is, without a doubt, one made with, but not burdened by, influences. The soft shallow focus and undeniable sympathy certainly sets it apart from a movie like Kids, yet carefully rendered moments recall the conscientious filmmaking of Carlos Reygadas—her soccer game to his rugby game. And with a so-called dearth in female directors, or at least a lack of representation at major festivals, Gia Coppola defines herself as a force that won’t be so easily overlooked in the future.