With names like Gia Coppola, Jack and Val Kilmer, Emma Roberts based on a story by James Franco; it's almost impossible to escape the assertion that this is Hollywood at its most nepotistic. However, writer/director Gia Coppola has shown some natural filmmaking gifts in her adaptation (of Franco's short stories) examining classic teen issues presented to contemporary teens in Palo Alto. April and Teddy should be together. April (Emma Roberts) is a good student and a soccer player with a crush on her coach (James Franco) that she happens to babysit for. The artistic and hedonistic Teddy (Jack Kilmer) is friends with the destructive Fred (Nat Wolff), who brings out the worst in him. April and Teddy find themselves in situations with life altering consequences, are their teenage wits enough to help them find a way out?
Coppola seems to have the knack for composition. Gia shares Sofia's (Coppola) naturalism and there's even a scene of Emma Roberts in a sweater and underpants that feels like a direct homage to Scarlett Johansson's opening moments in Sofia's Lost in Translation. While she shares her grandfather Francis' (Coppola) classic conception of scope. The characters are masters of their tiny slice of L.A and the camera is often putting them on a visual pedestal. However it's not just osmosis from her family, though it does take a while to manifest, Gia comes to the fore with a signature impressionistic scene that adoringly glares at Roberts' April.
Coppola impressed me the most in how Palo Alto was able to steer toward the raft of classic teen film archetypes and simultaneously debunking their relevance to the modern teen experience. Teddy (J. Kilmer) gets himself into a drunk driving situation and is pulled over by an african american police officer. For a brief moment you're tensing up, expecting for some kind of racial tirade from this stupid young kid that's going to put him in an awful situation, and yet he doesn't. April (Roberts) happens to be having a drunken kiss with a guy at a party and you're immediately waiting for the unceremonious teen pregnancy story to rear its ugly head, and yet, she's smart enough to keep it mild. Finally the promiscuous girl Chrissy (Olivia Crocicchia) that you're expecting to get into some heinous situation, but she actually gets to gain confidence and self-esteem and stops taking bullshit from the douches in her life.
Jack Kilmer's Teddy is on the one hand your typical grunting, monosyllabic adolescent while hinting at this sweeter artistic soul that's being corrupted by a perception that teenage experience is defined by nihilism. It's hard to tell whether it's a performance as much as it is great casting. Wolff's Fred is that teen kid that you knew growing up that wouldn't surprise you if you saw them in an obituary column. He's got a good sense of the mania required for Fred to work. The female characters are vastly more interesting than the lads. Roberts impressed me with April. She's a well written character and Roberts does as she's asked by her director. She clearly shows the maturity in ladies before her male counterparts. Crocicchia's Chrissy is the character you're most concerned about because she lacks April's level head. Watching her awakening to how the world works, is a huge highlight.
There are threads in this sprawl of stories that don't quite resonate. Mr. B's (Franco) exploitative soccer coach story works primarily to show off Roberts' reacting to the situation in an authentic way, more than the story. Wolff's Fred at times felt like a more extreme caricature of James Dean's titular Rebel Without a Cause. And finally there are a few moments that leave yawning loose ends and you're left to puzzle over whether it was painting the picture of the landscape or just a flash of further challenges of teen life.
Palo Alto is a perceptive debut that surprises for what it doesn't prescribe to the teen experience.
[rating=3] and a half
Blake Howard - follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman and listen to legacy audio reviews on That Movie Show 2UE here or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.
Directed by: Gia Coppola
Written by: Gia Coppola (based on the short stories of James Franco)
Starring: Jack Kilmer, Nat Wolff, Emma Roberts, Olivia Crocicchia, Claudia Levy, James Franco, Val Kilmer,