Gia Coppola's 'Palo Alto' Rises Above Usual Teenage-Angst Tropes
The Gia Coppola-directed Palo Alto breathes fresh air into James Franco's short stories on teenage ennui and rebellion.
Palo Alto, which is released in theaters on May 9, follows in the same vein as films like Kids or Elephant; they're about just how much trouble teens can get into when their distracted parents leave them alone (like sex, drugs and general debauchery). However, Coppola adds her personal storytelling voice to this film. Her dreamy stylistic choices and beautiful cinematography, accompanied by a poignant soundtrack help guide the tone of the film.
In her directorial debut, the granddaughter of Francis Ford Coppola has managed to capture the essence of the sleepy days of high school, the crushes that are crushing, and the longing to fit in. It's by no means something we haven't seen before in the the teenage-drama trope, but Coppola's adapted script lends itself to some witty and natural exchanges.
In Palo Alto, we get a glimpse into a number of different stories. April (Emma Roberts), is a shy teen who has a hint of a badass in her as she smokes the occasional cigarette at parties. She quietly pines over schoolmate Teddy (Jack Kilmer), a wild, but thoughtful and budding artist, who is joined by the hip with his out-of-control and unpredictable BFF Fred (Nat Wolff). While Teddy is faced with hundreds of hours of community service after getting a DUI, Fred gets bored when he's left alone and strikes a semi-relationship with insecure sexpot Emily (Zoe Levin). And in a plot development that feels played out and predictable, April develops an unnerving relationship with her soccer coach—single dad, Mr. B (Franco).
Coppola isn't the only one who comes from a line of entertainment vets. Roberts, who starred in We're the Millers, is Eric Roberts' daughter and Julia Roberts' niece. Kilmer as you might have guessed it, is Val Kilmer's son. (Val Kilmer makes a cameo in this film as spacey, pot-smoking pop to April.) However, what stands out in this film is the acting from Roberts, Kilmer and Wolff—it's something in film that manages to draw the audience in. They're all charming despite their flaws. And Wolff is a young actor that we all ought to keep an eye on; his next role will be a cancer patient, starring opposite Shailene Woodley in the Fault in Our Stars. If his portrayal of Fred gives us a glimpse into his future projects, we know that we'll be experiencing an emotional rollercoaster with him. In Palo Alto, he is always nearly at the brink—it's terrifying—yet he also makes for an oddly loyal friend.
Franco, on the other hand, seems to have thrown the towel in with this one. He portrays Mr. B without really trying, lacking any true emotionality. But then again, his character is more on the boring side, so there's not much more to that.
It's also hard separating Franco's Palo Alto stories from real life. The actor has been making waves in the headlines lately, like how he tried picking up on a 17-year-old girl to how he posted a nearly-nude selfie of himself on Instagram.
But other aspects of the film like the soundtrack add depth to Palo Alto. It's a pretty stellar one with Devonté Hynes (AKA Blood Orange) lending some of his indie-R&B tracks to the set. It does take a bit getting used to hearing one new track after another that match with Coppola's dreamy sequences. At times, it feels like we're watching a long music video.
Although Coppola is able to bring out natural conversations between the teens, she wavers in her storytelling to connect all the different stories in a cohesive way. And not all the actions of the protagonists are in character. We're unsure of why April makes some of the choices she does with Mr. B. But then again, maybe that's what it's like being a teen—being unpredictable with plenty of nonsensical actions as you're trying to figure yourself out. We all remember what that's like, right?
Palo Alto is out in theaters on May 9.