Gia Coppola’s film is an interesting, downbeat mood piece that may not climax conventionally, but is still a hypnotic and ambitious meditation on teen life.
NOTE (To address it right away): Writer/director Gia Coppola is Francis Ford Coppola’s granddaughter and Sofia’s niece. It not only features James Franco, but was based on his book. The lead actress is Emma Roberts, Julia Roberts’ niece, and the lead actor is Jack Kilmer, Val Kilmer’s son. Val also appears in the film. In addition, there are movie posters featured in the film for One from the Heart and The Virgin Suicides. Despite all this, Palo Alto has no whiff of nepotism or self-referential Hollywood inside jokes.
Palo Alto falls in the same moody and contemplative cinematic matrix that includes movies like Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, Larry Clark’s Bully, and Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides. It possesses the vice-encrusted fatalism of Van Sant, Clark’s full embracing of a teen’s sleazier qualities, and, more than anything, the downbeat emotional soft punches of Sofia’s film.
Palo Alto is a film about teenagers and the teenage milieu. Vice has a magnetic appeal, sexuality is used haphazardly, love is still being defined, and the need to define yourself is teetering between peaceful, amorous childhood affection, and outright adolescent violence and crime. The film is constructed in a series of small social interactions that all deal with the lead characters’ need to essentially define their loves and their friendships for one another in a way that feels real. They need to be adolescents and transcend their adolescence at the same time.
It helps that Coppola doesn’t judge her young characters. The young April (Emma Roberts) is torn between her growing affection for, and from, a classmate, Teddy (Jack Kilmer), and the clumsy advances of her much older soccer coach, Mr. B (James Franco). Teddy, meanwhile, is trying to figure out if he’s a gentle soul or if he wants to keep hanging out with his best friend Fred (Nat Wolff), who seems to be playing an ongoing, ever-darkening game of “Dare Me To” with the rest of the world. Fred is the wild asshole everyone knew in high school, the kind who committed crimes for no real reason whatsoever. Fred is also hooking up with the class slut, Emily (Zoe Levin). But don’t get her wrong; just because she messes around with many boys doesn’t mean she’s not an amazingly nice person.
Palo Alto drifts. Suffused with gentle trip-hop music and a lot of necessary-dialogue-free scenes of kids just hanging out at parties, you begin to absorb the zeitgeist of the modern teen without the impediments of heavy-handed plotting. And while this may seem like the kind of frustrating amoral movie that encourages the bad behavior it depicts (and I’m thinking of Larry Clark again in this instance), know that Gia Coppola has a much more knowing finger on the pulse of her characters. These kids know what’s right and wrong, but they’re at the age when they want to begin poking holes at the membrane that separates the two.
The film is slow-moving and may frustrate many viewers for its lack of climaxes and confrontations (even though someone does get cracked in the head with a bottle for his bad behavior). Plus, since the overall tone is so downbeat and quiet, Palo Alto may occasionally dip dangerously close to boredom for some viewers. But this is not a filmmaker telling us a story. This is a contemplation of teenage thinking rather than a psychological dissection.
An interesting observation: Francis Ford Coppola is best known for story driven movies that resemble classic literature in many ways. But, as the years have passed, both he and his director relatives have skewed closer and closer toward meditation. CQ, Lost in Translation, and now Palo Alto mark a weird sort of meditative legacy. These films stand alone, but they also compliment one another.
Rating: 4 Burritos.