Review: Palo Alto (2014)

I wasn’t expecting a film based on a James Franco short story collection to be as good as Palo Alto is. It’s a perceptive film that understands a fair deal about those rich, predominantly white teenagers so full of potential and so consumed by vanity that we hear about all the time in the media nowadays. In some ways, Gia Coppola’s film plays like a modern-day Fast Times at Ridgemont High, following a few teenagers in the titular city as they go about their lives, intersecting with each other, but mostly just drifting, getting high, sleeping with people they shouldn’t, generally making mistakes and not recognizing their importance. You know, being teenagers.

Palo Alto’s three central figures are April (Emma Roberts), the prim virgin, Teddy (Jack Kilmer), the lovable stoner-type, and Fred (Nat Wolff), the head case. Teddy’s interested in April, but he’s incapable of acting on his attraction. Instead of pursuing her, or really taking advantage of his obvious artistic talents, he mostly pisses the nights away driving around with Fred, smoking pot, and having ridiculous conversations.

April, in her own confusion and inability to connect to other people, mistakenly acts upon her affections for her lecherous soccer coach, Mr. B (James Franco). Because April doesn’t think much of people her own age, she assumes that the older Mr. B will have the maturity, and thus, the answers, that her own peers lack. Sadly, that’s not the case, and April has to learn that the hard way.

And Fred merely drifts around, channeling his rage through affected acts of craziness and trying hard to convince the people around him that he’s truly nuts. Fred is really just a kid acting out, trying to prove he understands the wavelengths of a world that is chaotic and meaningless.

All these characters are stereotypes to some extent, but all teen films trade in stereotypes and there’s honesty in portraying teenagers in these ways. Teenagers are liable to fall into types as they’re not sure who they are in the world and where they fit in. They’re often imitative and shallow. They’ll act how they think they should act. Palo Alto is also deft in showing how these roles are often a result of teenagers accepting the identities others give them. April’s social group declares her the virgin, and so she passively fills that role when dealing with her peers. She may not see herself that way, but she doesn’t actively fashion an identity that disproves her friends’ classification.

As well, even though the film is trading in teenage stereotypes, it’s also perceptive about the small aspects of teenage modes of communication. For instance, Teddy and April are obviously attracted to each other, but they’re unable to define that attraction to each other. When they speak, they say nothing, not wanting to ruin their chances with the other, not realizing they both feel the same way about their encounters.

On the flip side, there are aspects of the narrative that develop too easily. Mr. B is a stereotype, but not in the honest way April or Teddy is. He’s kind and attentive to April, but he’s also clearly covering up an inappropriate predilection for young girls. The instant Coppola introduces Mr. B, with Franco leering and grinning in his usual fashion, it’s obvious how his relationship with April with evolve, and how it will disintegrate. Coppola and Franco are obviously affectionate for the teenagers, and do a good job characterizing them, but their characterizations of the adults proves that their perceptiveness does not bridge generations.

Coppola’s filmmaking style is reminiscent of her aunt, Sofia Coppola’s. She loves soft lighting and pastel colour palettes. The cinematography would resemble films of the 1970s if it weren’t for its crisp, digital precision. The soundtrack is predictably tasteful and exact. I was pleased to recognize Mac DeMarco’s “Ode to Viceroy” playing in the background of one of the party scenes. Of course modern, rich, culturally-aware teenagers would play his music at parties.

Perhaps the most compelling aspect of Palo Alto is that it points to a promising future for Gia Coppola. The film itself will not stand as one of the great teenager films in the future. It’s a valuable film, but I doubt it’ll have the enduring honesty of the aforementioned Fast Times, or the lingering emotional impact of The Virgin Suicides. But if the young Coppola can build on the strengths visible in Palo Alto, and perhaps bridge the clinical remove that seems indicative of her family in recent years, she could be something great.

7 out of 10

Palo Alto (2014, USA)

Directed by Gia Coppola; written by Gia Coppola based off Palo Alto: Stories by James Franco; starring Emma Roberts, Jack Kilmer, Nat Wolff, Zoe Levin, and James Franco.