2014, R, 100 mins.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.