For her debut feature film, Gia Coppola (granddaughter of that Coppola) tackles the collection of short stories by James Franco, Palo Alto. Choosing to dwell on what life is like—and feels like—for a teenager, the film draws from several of the stories and interlinks them more cohesively in the film. Just as in the book, the film relies on an impressionistic mood to express this not-quite coming of age story.
While playing a game of “What if,” Fred (Nat Wolff) asks best friend Teddy (Jack Kilmer) what he would do if he crashed into another car. Would he drive away or stay and accept responsibility. The question becomes eerily prescient when, after a party, Teddy does indeed drive right into another car. He chooses to drive away, but still gets caught. Instead of being thrown into Juvenile Hall, he must do community service, which he fails to take seriously.
Fred takes life even less seriously than Teddy does. Number one on his list of distractions is the school slut Emily (Zoe Levin) whose crush on him he abuses. She (clichély) uses her promiscuity for social validation, and Fred takes advantage of that, despite her obvious, deeper feelings for him. She’s just one of the many outlets he has for trying to live the crazy and wild life he’s attempting to live.
Rounding out the trio of teens is April (Emma Roberts) who is attempting to navigate her own precarious love triangle. She is harboring an almost-crush on Teddy (who is nursing a crush of his own for her), but when their wires get a little crossed, she finds herself pursuing a man instead. Mr. B (James Franco), her soccer coach, is used to April coming over to babysit his son; and, eventually, he seduces her while helping her do some homework. She blithely responds to his advances, yet not even this older man can fill that teenage-sized void in her life.
The relationship between April and Mr. B is the most disturbing part of the film. Disturbing more for the painfully awkward chemistry between Roberts and Franco than its inherent sliminess. In fact, the poor chemistry only serves to undermine the dramatic impact of the story instead of elevating the issues addressed as it does in the book.
In fact, Palo Alto ignores most of the dramatic, plot-heavy stories from the book—ones that address teen violence and ennui-driven teen cruelty (except for a bizarre scene that uses Fred’s voiceover to tell the graphic and tragic tale of Emily, which is forgotten or ignored by the film right after it occurs). Those moments were certainly cinematic enough to make for an engaging film, although they stretched believability in the book and would have done so on film as well. Those stories, also, would have made for a much darker film. Yet the almost infuriating lack of consequences for actions (aside from Teddy’s probation, which he even manages to abuse without too much consequence) remains in the adaptation.
Coppola, who also wrote the screenplay, focuses on the smaller, more random and mundane moments of these kids’ lives. Those moments add up to an atmospheric film that quickly feels as dull and inert as the lives these kids are leading. There’s a sense, as the film draws to an end, that everything is building to some climactic action; but even then the film fails to deliver any last-minute punches.
Where Palo Alto shines, though, is in its actors. Roberts naturally captures the frustration of April. Wolff teeters on the edge of crazy so well you eagerly anticipate the moment he’ll crack. Levin does a superb job of adding dimensions to her clichéd character. Franco is subdued and spot-on in his role (and looks great in a track suit). And newcomer Kilmer (son of that Kilmer, who has a cameo in the film) is perhaps the most engaging and perplexing of the bunch. We see how confused and bored he is with life, yet we never understand why his actions are so destructive.
Coppola, for what it’s worth, succeeds in her aim to accurately give voice to the “aimlessness and vulnerability of being young.” But it is also that very aimlessness that seeps into the restless viewer, making it much too difficult to fully enjoy the film.
After its run at the Tribeca Film Festival, Palo Alto will be released in theaters on May 9th.