Palo Alto (2013) / Drama
MPAA Rated: R for strong sexual content, drug and alcohol use, and pervasive language - all involving teens
Running Time: 100 min.
Cast: Emma Roberts, Jack Kilmer, Nat Wolff, James Franco, Zoe Levin, Val Kilmer, Don Novello
Small role: Colleen Camp, Chris Messina, Talia Shire
Director: Gia Coppola
Screenplay: Gia Coppola (based on short stories by James Franco)
Review published May 25, 2014
Palo Alto marks the debut feature film of writer-director Gia Coppola, Francis Ford's granddaughter, who adapts a few entries in a collection of short stories written by none other than co-star James Franco (Veronica Mars, This is The End), who compiled these stories in a book published in 2010 called "Palo Alto", the town Franco is from. The film explores the boredom that many teenagers in affluent suburbia feel that causes them to live recklessly and without regard for anyone other than themselves. Where are the parents? Well, they aren't much better off than the kids.
Emma Roberts (We're the Millers, Nancy Drew) gets the star billing playing April, a "good girl" high school student at the titular Bay Area, California town who plays on the soccer team while also babysitting for her soccer coach, Mr. B (Franco), a single dad who goes on bad dates once in a while. April is the crush of friend and fellow student Teddy (Kilmer, the son of Val, who also appears in the movie), a bored teen who ends up getting into a bit of trouble with the law after a night of getting high at a party with his even bigger delinquent friend, Fred (Wolff, Stuck in Love). Fred is the object of a crush himself from Emily (Levin, The Way Way Back), the promiscuous girl in school just looking for a guy who will see her as more than just someone to use for easy sex.
Palo Alto will likely remind many viewers of the work of Gia Coppola's talented director aunt, Sofia Coppola, for its look at lives in a state of listlessness, particularly among the youth. The hazy, soft focus Gia uses is akin to Sofia's debut, The Virgin Suicides, and the subject matter of delinquent California teens with no moral compass also evokes The Bling Ring. But the film is unique enough on its own to avoid stronger comparisons that that. These aren't teenagers looking for status or to become celebrities, but they are looking for meaning, for identity, and for someone to just love them. They grow restless and retreat into a world of escape, whether it be drugs or video games, while their parents are off doing their own thing.
Art-house cinema buffs should enjoy the film for its enigmatic nature, though it doesn't really have enough connective narrative tissue to keep the attention of mainstream cinema-goers. Like the characters in the film, it's a project that isn't quite mature enough to know what it wants to do or what it wants to be; it's aimless, distant, and struggling to find an identity. In a way, its looseness can make it seem like a long 100 minutes, but it's in keeping with the themes of the piece. It's a glossy snapshot of the era of ennui-addled youth, and interesting in that context, but viewers looking for certainty and fully-formed realizations might be missing the point that there doesn't seem to be one for many kids today.
©2014 Vince Leo