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Palo Alto

Directed by Gia Coppola
Produced by Vince Jolivette, Miles Levy, Sebastian Pardo, and Adriana Rotaru
Screenplay by Gia Coppola Based on the book by James Franco
With: Jack Kilmer, Nat Wolff, Emma Roberts, Olivia Crocicchia, Claudia Levy, James Franco, Chris Messina, Timothy Starks, Colleen Camp, Don Novello, Talia Shire, Val Kilmer, and the voice of Francis Ford Coppola
Cinematography: Autumn Durald
Editing: Leo Scott
Runtime: 100 min
Release Date: 09 May 2014
Aspect Ratio: 1.85 : 1
Color: Color

Palo Alto, the debut film of the third generation of the Coppola family of filmmakers, successfully captures the banal yet heightened sensations of adolescence, but fails to say anything fresh about the experience of being young in America. Gia Copolla (granddaughter of Francis) explores themes and milieus similar to those her aunt, Sofia Coppola, considers in The Bling Ring (2013). That picture attempted to examine the empty values and questionable morality of modern teenagers and their clueless parents via the true story of a celebrity-obsessed crime ring. Gia Copolla takes Palo Alto, James Franco's 2010 collection of short fiction set in the California town where he came of age, as her source material. If watching The Bling Ring is like reading an impersonal magazine article, Palo Alto is more like becoming absorbed in an above average high-schooler’s creative writing assignment. Palo Alto is a richer work than The Bling Ring, but ultimately just as unsatisfying.

What Gia Copola's film has to offer are the strong performances of its young actors, including some who are also children of Hollywood royalty. Emma Roberts (daughter of Eric and niece of Julia) plays April, the film's most developed as relatable character. Jack Kilmer (son of Val) plays Teddy, an ungrounded kid teetering on the verge of juvenile delinquency. Since Teddy is a white male coming from a relatively privileged background, he has more chances to get his act together than most American teens, but watching him unaffectedly drift from one potentially life altering experience to the next quickly becomes tiresome. April is far more interesting. Though smarter and more sensitive than her peers, she still ends up in situations that could be quite damaging, most significantly an affair with her coach (played by Franco). Watching April’s attempts to be true to herself without exposing her raw internal emotions to the outside world is the best aspect of the film.

Both actors give the kind of natural, human performances that make subtle, small scale, observational movies like this work, but only April's half of the story coalesces into anything substantial. When Roberts is not on screen, the film becomes a pastiche of scenes, interesting on their own, but not adding up to much. Individual moments radiate authentic feelings of teenage angst, confusion, and cynical bravado, and the narrative’s rudderless nature mirrors the characters’ search for identity and meaning. They are each at a crossroads and Coppola only hints at which direction they’ll take. But little actually seems to be at stake for any of them. I watched the characters from a removed distance, sizing up their actions based on my own mature perspective rather than experiencing the events through their young eyes. In this regard Palo Alto plays like a soft, inconsequential version of Larry Clark’s Kids (1995).

Many of the Coppola regulars turn up in the film--Don Novello, Talia Shire, Colleen Camp, and even Francis himself (in voice over), but their roles lack substance. Practically every adult in the film is treated as a joke. The only two of significance are played by Chris Messina, as the father of Teddy’s unruly best friend Fred (Nat Wolff), and Franco himself. Both of their characters still act like teenagers themselves, which is interesting, but neither is sufficiently developed to provide much insight into the psychological make-up of the young protagonists. Gia Coppola and cinematographer Autumn Durald capture the California malaise almost as well Sofia Coppola and Hariss Servidis did in 2010’s Somewhere, but Palo Alto misses too many opportunities for perspicacity about its characters and commentary on the society they live in.