A film review by Craig J. Koban September 21, 2014 


2014, R, 100 mins.


Emma Roberts as April  /  James Franco as Mr. B  /  Val Kilmer as Stewart  /  Colleen Camp as Sally  /  Jack Kilmer as Teddy  /  Keegan Allen as Archie  /  Nat Wolff as Fred

Written and directed by Gia Coppola  /  Based on the short stories by James Franco

PALO ALTO is a drama that tries to attain a level of profundity regarding its exploration into its adolescent characters.  Regrettably, the film’s noble ambitions are somewhat stunted by how aimless and meandering its overall narrative is, which created more listlessness in me than genuine interest in the material.  

I’m not entirely sure what kind of film PALO ALTO is trying to be, what characters it’s trying to focus on, or, for that matter, what it’s really wanting to say about teen life in general.  I think that it’s trying to capture the free-wheeling spontaneity of growing up while approaching adulthood and all of the warts and all social awkwardness that occurs during this tumultuous journey, but PALO ALTO really adds very little to this genre that we’ve not all seen so many times before.  

This is kind of too bad, seeing as there’s obvious talent on display in front of and behind the camera here.  The film is directed by 27-year-old first time director Gia Coppola, granddaughter of Francis Ford Coppola and the niece of actress Sofia Coppola.  If anything, she has her more famous filmmaking relative’s knack for conjuring up a beautiful and sometimes hauntingly dreamlike aura to the proceedings and certainly has an eye for garnering solid, lived-in performances from her stars.  She also penned the screenplay, which was adapted from James Franco’s (also staring here in a supporting role) 2010 short-story collection that he wrote when working on his Masters of Fine Arts Degree while attending Brooklyn College.  He apparently sought out Coppola to adapt his stories after being impressed with her photography.  There’s no doubt that PALO ALTO has compelling material in its suburban coming-of-age stories, and Coppola is certainly an adept filmmaker with a future.  Alas, the resulting film still feels too loosely assembled and lacking in cohesion.  I’m sure it worked marvelously as a series of short stories, but as a singular film…not so much. 



There are four main characters and story threads all vying for attention here.  Some generate dramatic intrigue, whereas others are somewhat empty and hollow.  One of the kids is Teddy (Jack Kilmer, son of Val, whom also makes a rather inspired and funny cameo here) as the proverbial “good kid” that you just know will get himself into trouble.  He’s an inquisitive, somewhat shy, and creative soul, but when he hangs out with the hotheaded and perpetually vulgar Fred (Nat Wolff), things change for Ted for the worse.  Fred is what you would call a “troubled kid” and his aggressively hostile outbursts at his mostly innocent victims are cruel and tortuous to endure.  His home life, though, gives some insights in the potential reasons behind his volatility.  His dad (played in a quietly disturbing performance by Chris Messina) is clearly not a suitable role model for Fred to steer himself on the right path. 

Back to Teddy.  He has a crush on a local student, April (a very natural Emma Roberts), a seriously shy soccer girl that can’t seem to find a way to fit in with the more popular girls of the school.  She does seem popular with her soccer coach, Mr. B (Franco), a popular teacher and mentor figure at school that a majority of his female students look up to with respect and admiration.  However, underneath Mr. B’s façade as a congenial and well-meaning school official lurks something…creepier…as he begins to slowly, but surely make advances towards April, which she in turn reciprocates.  While this is occurring Fred finds himself hooking up with Emily (Zoe Levin), a girl that seems to have no problems throwing her inhibitions into the wind.  As Fred and Emily engage in a courtship that turns very sour, Teddy finds himself getting in trouble with the law and poor April gets far more than she bargained for when she decides to embark on a possible relationship with Mr. B. 

At the very least, Coppola creates a very surreal looking film that’s easy to immerse in.  With stirring and evocative cinematography by Autumn Durald, PALO ALTO is a film with a near faux-documentary feel that makes us feel like unseen observers in the lives of these potentially doomed teens.  The atmosphere of the film is richly delineated and moody – the actual Palo Alto here seems like a dark, mysterious, and foreboding backdrop that caters to and emblemizes the emotional void that these young characters exists in.  If anything, Coppola deserves credit in the manner that she never goes out of her way to neither justify nor condemn the actions of her characters.  She simply lets her camera capture these isolated and confused souls in the individual moments they inhabit.  There’s objectivity to Coppola’s overall style here that’s sort of refreshing in the genre that sometimes spends too much time engaging in pandering social commentary. 

Coppola also has a very finely assembled cast here, in particular in Emma Roberts, who really knows who to sell her character’s sense of segregation, uncertainty, and overall anxiety and self-doubt.  Her scenes opposite of Franco’s coach are the film’s raw and unnerving highlights, as we see Mr. B use his considerable charm – and abuse his position as a school instructor – to have his way with his prey (Franco effortlessly oozes low-key vileness here).   The other performers are also quite exceptional, like Jack Kilmer who makes Teddy feel like an authentically rendered teen throughout the film; he’s terrifically understated through the film.  Contrasting Kilmer is Nat Wolff, who creates a character so loathsome and toxically dislikeable that you actually begin to fear for the actor’s well being playing the role.

Yet, for as solid as the film is directed and as finely as the film is acted, why did PALO ALTO leave me feeling at such a cold and detached distance from it?  The film is, to be fair, about soulless characters on a slow-burn journey towards self-implosion, but there’s hardly a persona here that genuinely commands a rooting interest in.  All of the teens in the film as so disaffected, so self-absorbed, and engage in such wantonly destructive activities without a care in the world to consequences that you have to remind yourself to stay engrossed in their daily lives.  The adults in the film are sort of laughably opaque non-entities in the film, aside from the fact that the adult actors in the film are good in their respective roles.  Most of the people over 20 here are so one-dimensional in their social irresponsibility that they never once feel like relatable or well-rendered characters; they seem pathetically at the service of coasting the film further with an unhealthy sheen of nihilism. 

Gia Coppola is a filmmaker of serious artistic talent.  I greatly look forward to seeing what she can really do with a strongly held together screenplay.  Her PALO ALTO is not so much a bad film, per se, as much as it is a misguided one that lacks the discipline of a much older and more attune filmmaker.  As a cinematic visualist and an empowered director of actors, she’s positively on solid ground.  PALO ALTO is just a film that feels about two or three rewrites away from being something truly noteworthy and meaningful as far as coming-of-age drama go.  There’s nothing wrong with a film that has multiple narrative threads merging, then fracturing away, then merging back on themselves again, but PALO ALTO feels too aimless and haphazardly constructed.  As a stirring mood piece it hits its marks, but as a work of enthralling drama the film is a bit of an empty vessel.

  H O M E