Review: Palo Alto (2014)

A few months ago, on an early spring morning, I awoke to an interesting headline as I drowsily checked my Facebook feed on this typical Thursday dawn.  It read, “Actor James Franco tries to pick up a teenage girl on Instagram.” “Love of my life James Franco?!” I thought to myself, “Surely this must be some sort of tabloid hoax!” Disgusted yet clearly intrigued, I furrowed my brow, continued to click and sure enough there it was – snapshots of flirtatious Instagram messages exposing the actor’s attempt to pick up a 17 year old Scottish girl while she was on holidays in New York City.  Just as interesting was the heavy media discussion regarding the actor’s behavior which ensued, with many speculations that his actions were actually apart of a publicity stunt for his latest trending film: Palo Alto. Based on a collection of short stories written by Franco, and starring the actor as a soccer coach who has an affair with one of his underage students (played by Emma Roberts), I knew I had to check out what all the fuss was about.

Walking into the theater to screen Palo Alto, even I have to admit that Franco’s social media scandal was all I really knew in regards to the film’s synopsis.  But as the lights dimmed and the film rolled, I was surprised to find myself wrapped up in director Gia Coppola’s visual mix tape of teenage angst and ennui. To say that the Franco/Roberts love story is the force driving the film would be simply selling it short. Rather, Palo Alto serves as a genuine exploration into the pains and joys of suburban youth in America today. Accompanied by cinematography that makes every shot feel like a nostalgic photograph & set by a hauntingly beautiful low-fi score by Devonté Hynes, the film somehow brings the blasé nature of teenage life into the land of the cinematic.

The characters in Palo Alto float throughout time and space with a disassociation that is strangely relatable. The film has a way with its audience, honing in on those “in between” moments of adolescence that often define teenage angst – the confusion, the lack of purpose. The film has no set plot, and is told through an observational style – dropping in on its characters every so often, creating a collage of raw moments along the way.

While, Palo Alto includes all of the usual elements of debauchery, sex, and angst that have driven former teen dramas, the director opts to capture the truth rather than to shock in her directorial debut. The “disaffected youth” genre is one that runs deep in the Coppola family line, with aunt Sophia being one of the key filmmakers in this category. But Gia’s strong sense of mood and understanding of emotional subtlety is what makes this film completely her own, and in turn is what sets it apart from your archetypal wasted youth flick.

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“Where are we going?” “Fucking nowhere.”

The two central characters of the film are Teddy (Jack Kilmer) & April (Emma Roberts), two classmates who sweetly and silently pine for each other in the midst of aimless high school life. Teddy is a good-hearted but troubled teen, whose destructive tendencies become amplified when accompanied by his loud-mouthed best friend Fred (Nat Wolff). After a long night of partying, the two are involved in a hit and run and Teddy is subsequently placed on probation. Throughout the film, we see Teddy try his best to figure out and do the right thing (whatever that may be), but not always succeeding along the way. Meanwhile, shy and sensitive April struggles with her own befuddlement, not knowing where it is that she belongs in the social structure of high school, post-high school, and outside of it. As her confusion develops, she begins to get closer to her soccer coach Mr. B (Franco), with whom she begins a relationship with after he reveals his feelings towards her during an after school tutoring session.

As we grow to know the individuals of Coppola’s dreamy & pensive world, there is a constant focus on the idea of something and somewhere that is “else,” as the characters regularly pose questions to each other of “if you could do this, if you could be here, what would you do?” None of the characters are especially motivated by any specific goals or reason, but instead struggle to deal with the directionless void of the “now,” partying their way to the next moment with little comprehension of the effects their actions bring. From its’ over-the-top party scenes of the young, rich and bored, to it’s lingering moments of melancholic silence, the films’ visual style and lack of concrete plot mirror its’ central theme of escapism. And that in many ways sum of the characters that live in the world of Palo Alto – a perpetual desire to escape, but doing anything to feel.

And yet, somewhere in between the teenage foolishness and pot-fueled descent into nothing and nowhere, something about this film hits deep. The world that Coppola creates becomes more and more entrenching as she delves into the mingled web of her characters’ psychosis – the pain, the loss of innocence, the perplexities of who you are or what it is that you want. What Palo Alto does is capture these uncertainties at a time in life when every move you make feels like it defines your being. The film poses many references to the idea of being “good,” and the emotional difficulties teenagers face when attempting to navigate what that may mean as they enter into young adulthood.

This movie functions as a web of portraits and Coppola’s choice in casting relative unknowns solidify Palo Alto’s emotional genuineness. Jack Kilmer (son of Val) hits the nail on the head with his performance, making it hard to imagine the film working without him as the vulnerable and troubled Teddy. Emma Roberts’ innocence is heartbreaking and relatable in her portrayal of April, and Nat Wolff is electric as the dangerously angry and destructive Fred. Surely it is no coincidence that the actors’ strong performances and range of depth are attribute to Coppola’s keenly observed sense of authenticity. The film has its slow points, and I would not necessarily say that Palo Alto sheds any new light amongst its audience. But what it does have is a voice of its own, making it clear that Gia Coppola’s examination of youth today is anything but wasted.

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