Palo Alto has a rather intriguing pedigree. It is based on a collection of short stories written by none other than James Franco, and is adapted for the screen and directed by Gia Coppola (that’s right, there’s another one). Gia, grand-daughter of Francis Ford, is perhaps the one who has heralded the most from this experience. The novel itself was received with mixed reviews, with many commending Franco on his style and skill with visual story-telling, but felt he lacked substance within his tales of teenage anxiety. In regards to the adaptation of his work, much of the narrative problems remain, but what we can gleam from it is that there is another talented Coppola whom we should keep a very keen eye on.
All taking place within the town of Palo Alto, California, the film focuses on the lives of a number of teenagers all dealing with their own personal anxieties and issues. April (Emma Roberts), a conscientious student who finds herself in a difficult situation when she begins to enageg in a relationship with her much older Soccer Coach (Franco). Troubled stoner Teddy (Jack ‘son of Val’ Kilmer), is on probation following a drunk driving accident. He harbours a crush for April, but his friendship with the volatile Fred (Nat Woolf) always finds a way to get in the way and send him on a dangerous path. Emily (Zoe Levin) is a girl struggling to find affection, thinking that the only way to get a boy to pay attention to her is to offer sexual favours. At certain points, their lives cross as each party leads to the next, and Fred’s behaviour in particular continues to spiral into chaos.
The issues with the narrative namely come from a struggle to balance all the stories fairly and with the same amount of engagement. When they cross-over, it is easy enough to engage with the characters, but there are times when we are left somewhat befuddled as to what chord Coppola and Franco are trying to strike. The film is slightly aimless and scattered, never quite content in who it wants to spend most of its time with. Coppola’s screenplay has rightly streamlined Franco’s collection in order to focus on more select characters, but it still drifts a bit too freely to be satisfying.
What buoys the narrative through its lulls is the impeccable cast. Franco very much plays as you’d expect, with the role taking on a strange new level what with his recent Instagram controversy, leading to a strange occasion of his own art imitating his own life in quite the way he and you probably didn’t expect (or entirely want). Roberts stands out as one of the more impressive performances of the ensemble. She manages to convey a convincing naivety and offer enough restraint to convey a sense of frustration underneath her exterior, delivering the most authentic teenage performance in the cast. Jack Kilmer impresses, equally conveying a sense of genuine anxiety, but his is a role which offers little different to the role of troubled team being mislead by a destructive best friend. The friend in question, Nat Woolf’s Fred, comes across as a more dangerous version of Ferris Bueller’s Cameron, and Woolf appears to be very much using Alan Rudd’s performance as a touch-stone, albeit with a much more nasty streak.
What marks Palo Alto as a truly worthwhile experience, and what makes it a film that I will most definitely re-visit, is the imagery and atmosphere that Coppola manages to construct. I discussed directorial débuts recently in my review for Wish I Was Here, and I would couple Coppola with the likes of Garden State as a début which marks an interesting talent. The 27 year-old director does wear her influences on her sleeve, but that’s not uncommon within the works of first-time directors. Teen movies that seem to have influenced include Fast Times at Ridgemont High and her own Aunt’s The Virgin Suicides,which particularly seems to be have been a major point of reference.
What Coppola manges to do incredibly well is create a very dangerous atmosphere around the town of Palo Alto and its young inhabitants. It feels like a shaken bottle that is ready to pop at any moment should things get too violent. Ultimately, it doesn’t amount to a great deal, but the tension Coppola concocts around her characters engages your attention and refuses to let go until the credits roll. This coupled with the beautiful cinematography and well judged soundtrack marks Gia Coppola as a director who will more than likely prove worthy of the illustrious name.
Palo Alto is, come the end of proceedings, a rather clichéd addition to the teen drama genre. But it is one that demands attention. You may not feel particularly enlightened, or believe that the characters have truly developed all that much, but you do feel you are watching a piece of work that has been made with great passion and conviction by all involved. It is a commendable piece of genre film-making, and an impressive début for the new Coppola on the block.