A rare three-dimensional portrayal of adolescence. These teens make mistakes, and they reckon with them.
Gia Coppola’s Palo Alto wades through the malaise of modern teen life as well as any movie has in years, reminding us of how dirty and distressing high school life can truly be. Based on a book of short stories by James Franco set in the semi-cushy California city he grew up in, the film depicts everyday-looking adolescents who make bad mistakes and reckon with them. It’s a deceptively truthful approach to the subgenre that few studio productions have the cajones to touch. Coppola does her family name proud and announces herself as an exciting new voice in the cinemasphere.
Coppola takes bits and pieces from Franco’s anthology and strings them together into a cohesive narrative, and the result gels pretty well, structurally. The group of well-off white kids sauntering through their suburban wasteland are all well-drawn and have unique, interesting trajectories. Emma Roberts plays April, a virgin who may or may not have a questionable budding relationship with her soccer coach (Franco), whose son she babysits on the weekends. She also has a bit of a crush on the more appropriately-aged Teddy (Jack Kilmer), a good-natured stoner kid who’s a bit of a screw-up, mostly due to the toxic influence of his reckless, sociopath friend Fred (Nat Wolff). In a sleeper role, Zoe Levin plays Emily, a misguided girl who wants love but doesn’t know how to attract others with anything but her body.
The film opens with Teddy and Fred sitting in a car in an empty parking lot at night, rambling about hypothetical, fantastical teenage boy nonsense because they have nothing else better to do. They accidentally ram the car into the wall in front of them, and with that Coppola has set the tone of the film perfectly. These lost souls are in limbo, too old to stay home all night, and too young to partake in the adult nightlife, so their only option is to shuffle around, drink, smoke, have parties, and break stuff, including themselves.
There isn’t a lot going on plot-wise, which is a good thing, as the film’s identity is more defined as a moving portrait of the modern, suburban teenager. Teddy and Fred are friends not because they’re good for each other (the opposite is true), but mostly because cutting down a tree with a chainsaw tickles them both in the same way. It’s better to be bored together than bored alone, at the very least. When Teddy gets a DUI while driving home from a party, he talks shit to the police officer, establishing again that he isn’t your typical teen movie protagonist, but a confused kid who makes mistakes often.
With a background in photography, Coppola keeps her composure visually, not working too hard to wow us with compositions or colors. As a result the film (which is, in fact, pretty) is tasteful in its imagistic flourishes, flirting with the surreal only at timely, pivotal moments in the characters’ misadventures. For example, when April has her first sexual experience, time seems to stop, and we’re transported to the deepest recesses of her mind as Coppola focuses on her face and heavy breathing, muting out the rest of the world. All of the melodrama that spoils modern teen movies is hushed to almost non-existence here; the film is as moody, dark, and accurately evokes the intensity of teenage bewilderment.
Kilmer and Roberts (both fantastic) are the central characters, but Wolff and Levin have an engaging storyline to navigate as well. The rude, in-your-face Fred finds the promiscuous Emily the perfect play thing for him to exploit and dominate, and their increasingly abusive meetings culminate in a stirring poolside moment that changes them both forever.
What’s significant about Palo Alto is that, even with Coppola’s expressionistic delivery, it’s as accurate a portrayal of today’s teenager you’ll find in movies. It’s an excellent time capsule for future generations. These kids are in limbo, not consumed by future plans like college or careers, but by the most present of issues, big and small. They look and feel real; Teddy plucks on his guitar in his messy room (which is Kilmer’s in real life), April shuts the door and bounces around to music when she gets home from school, and Fred dicks around at the local skatepark. It’s these small, quiet moments in life that Coppola captures so well, moments that seem insignificant at the time but later develop into our most vivid, cherished memories. A shining debut feature.
Originally published on 5/16/2014