PALO ALTO screened at the Revelation Perth International Film Festival in July. It will return as part of Luna Cinemas’ regular program on Thursday August 17.
PALO ALTO is a loosely plotted coming-of-age story that follows April (Emma Roberts) and Teddy (Jack Kilmer) as they navigate their way through middle-class teenage life in Palo Alto, California. April and Teddy know each other from school and have a mutual attraction, but neither knows how to take the next step and so their friendship is awkward. April baby-sits for her soccer coach, a single father called Mr. B (James Franco). When they talk he seems to be flirting with the teenager, but she isn’t certain. Teddy’s closest friend is Fred (Nat Wolff). He is an easily bored boy who often gets himself or Teddy into trouble. Fred is having a very casual relationship with Emily, another girl from their school. These strands make up the movie’s narrative. The end result is an impressionistic, slice-of-life drama.
The kids aren’t in a tightly-knit group. It takes some time to pick who is connected to whom. The world of this movie is presented in close ups and in details; we see eyelashes, fingernails, fidgeting hands or the play of light and shadow on the ground. These teens are in their own individual bubbles. They have left childhood but are still unformed. They are emotionally removed from the world of their parents who are flawed and mostly of no use to them. They are vaguely aware they are supposed to be studying and working towards college, but that future feels abstract and uninviting. Partying in the present is simpler to deal with. Being in the moment with sex, drugs, food and video games is better than taking on responsibility and accountability.
Director Gia Coppola’s first feature is an adaptation of a collection of James Franco stories. That sentence alone is pure snarkbait for culture commentators who want to have a shot at Franco’s hipster aura or the filmmaking dynasty Coppola hails from, however her approach to Franco’s material has resulted in a strong debut film. In interview, the director has explained how she wanted to make her movie without help from her aunt Sofia or her grandfather Francis in order to ensure hers was the vision that guided the material. She worked with her young actors to make the scripted material more true to their age group. The performances she elicits from the cast are excellent across the board. There are standouts; Emma Roberts is beautifully contained as April and Nat Wolff’s damaged Fred is believably immature and manipulative.
Many will be content to go on a seemingly random journey with these characters. The cinematography is beautiful and individual scenes are always engaging. However, if you’re the type of person who looks for a strong story line, that is not what PALO ALTO is about. Coppola was inspired by other youth films like FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH and THE OUTSIDERS as well as her aunt Sofia’s THE VIRGIN SUICIDES. The episodic quality of those influences is obvious. The movie also has something of the formlessness of DAZED AND CONFUSED. You will get the most out of this by hanging out and observing. No one races through the airport to make sure their soul mate doesn’t get on the plane to New York at the end.
At first I was somewhat annoyed with these privileged kids and their first world problems. It took some minutes for me to stop being a grumpy, middle-aged film reviewer. The director and her talented cast create flawed and rounded characters we can relate to. We are reminded that for many, traveling from childhood to adulthood is the most difficult journey one can make, even if we’re lucky enough to be living somewhere like Palo Alto.
PALO ALTO is an undeniably impressive first feature from Coppola. It runs for 100 minutes. I rated it a 7/10