Palo Alto (2013)
“I do things all the time for no reason.” Of all the lines mumbled or screamed by the teenagers of Palo Alto, this one feels the most like a statement of purpose. The sentiment fits just about everyone we meet in the film. Characters stagger from one destructive moment to the next with little in the way of logic. Palo Alto, at its best, sits back and lets them experiment, fail, and learn.
The film marks the debut of writer/director Gia Coppola, granddaughter of Francis Ford and niece of Sofia, and is adapted from a book of short stories by James Franco, who co-stars. All this is to say: Palo Alto is a sitting duck for the online snark community. The temptation to accuse Coppola of nepotism or Franco of vanity is strong, no doubt. Franco’s recent Instagram flirtation with a teenager, which echoes a key plot point here, adds another layer of extra-textual distraction. Stripped of those, the film is a fairly compelling snapshot of high school aimlessness. It arrives as a promising first feature for its writer/director and potential breakout for its lead, Emma Roberts.
Franco’s recent Instagram flirtation with a teenager, which echoes a key plot point here, adds another layer of extra-textual distraction. Stripped of those, the film is a fairly compelling snapshot of high school aimlessness. It arrives as a promising first feature for its writer/director and potential breakout for its lead, Emma Roberts.
Roberts stars as April, a prototypically self-conscious high school student in Palo Alto, California. She splits screen time with several of her classmates. Chief among them is Teddy (Jack Kilmer), a destructive artist type who can’t decide if he’d rather volunteer at a children’s library or get drunk and chainsaw a tree from its roots. Teddy spends most of his time with Fred (Nat Wolff), a textbook Bad Influence and flagrant misogynist. Fred unleashes his most vile urges on Emily (Zoe Levin), a party girl looking for love. Any viewer can sense that April feels out of place in this community. She goes to the parties, but a life of red Solo cups and drunk driving doesn’t have much inherent appeal for her. It’s this blend of relative maturity and obvious insecurity that leaves her primed for the advances of her soccer coach (Franco), an affable, exploitative older man.
The tone feels right for a film about erratic teenagers with too much time on their hands. For really, looking back, what was high school but a four year, emo-tinged mood montage? Characters here spend a lot of time either gazing off or acting out. They swerve from sympathetic to repellent, which is a pretty fair appraisal of my high school mood swings. With big assists from her composers (Robert Schwartzman and Devonté Hynes, a.k.a. Blood Orange) and cinematographer (Autumn Durald), Coppola captures the emotional volatility of that time — when the highs were really high and the lows were really low.
The film is also quite visually accomplished for a low-budget indie debut. Coppola cites Zodiac as an inspiration, which may sound absurd, but those familiar with that film can see it in the texture of the images here. Coppola arrives at film by way of photography, and she no doubt has an eye for dreamy isolated images, which she puts to good use in the film’s many montages.
She has less of a knack, however, for putting together a coherent scene. Late in the film, for example, we find April hunched on the floor of a public bathroom, crying in close-up. Enter two chatty classmates. Coppola never gives us a clear indication of where these three characters are in relation to one another. The close-up on April doesn’t tell us if she’s in a stall or hunched under an automatic hand dryer. As such, I kept waiting for the girls to notice April, because I couldn’t tell if April was hidden in a stall or in plain sight. I’m going to assume that spatial disorientation wasn’t the desired effect of the scene.
The tone feels right for a film about erratic teenagers with too much time on their hands. For really, looking back, what was high school but a four year, emo-tinged mood montage?
Emma Roberts delivers the film’s finest performance as April. The 23-year-old former Neutrogena model has the uneasy smile and eye-contact evasion of a true teenage introvert. Her nervous tics sell the film’s risqué romance with Franco. Watching Palo Alto, no one would question why her character would succumb to the charms of a preying older man. Roberts conveys both the desire to escape those around her and the skittishness she feels once her romance materializes.
Palo Alto says very little we haven’t heard before from a teenage coming-of-age story. It holds no major revelations; it takes no great artistic leaps. Many of the characters (and the scenarios in which they find themselves) feel overly familiar. We’ve seen it done before, and better, but that doesn’t mean we don’t want to see it again. There’s an inherent appeal to stories of defiant youth and the drunken hookups and delinquent behavior that come with them. For most of us, getting older means growing a tad mellower, more rational, predictable. We don’t “do things for no reason” like we used to. Palo Alto is an effective, romantic reminder of those wilder years.
Palo Alto marks the arrival of another gifted member of the Coppola family. As a portrait of high school life, the film sits somewhere between the ensemble joys of Dazed and Confused and the more abstract poetics of Paranoid Park. There’s room in this world for a funnier, more accessible take on the Gus Van Sant aesthetic, and Gia Coppola’s found it. Palo Alto offers a judgment-free look back on teen angst.