Film Review: PALO ALTO (directed by Gia Coppola / U.S. premiere at Tribeca Film Festival)

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by Dmitry Zvonkov on April 24, 2014

in Film

YET ANOTHER STUDY OF SUBURBAN TEENS

It’s difficult to make a successful first feature, even for one who comes from cinematic royalty, as Palo Alto demonstrates. Writer/director Gia Coppola’s film, based on a short story collection of the same name by James Franco (who also acts in the film), is by no means a disaster. There’s a story, there are characters, things happen; the major elements are there; it’s the details that are either wrong or missing.

Zoe Levin in 'Palo Alto.' (Tribeca Film)

Palo Alto falls into that all-too-familiar independent film sub-genre of minimalist observational pieces about all those confused, sullen, disaffected, middle-class, suburban teenagers who dress like slobs, mope around, get drunk, smoke pot, have big house-trashing parties, drive drunk, commit random acts of hooliganism and destruction, are blasé about sex, and engage in conversations that have nothing to do with anything: “What would you do if you were Egyptian?” “I’d be a pharaoh.” Good for you. Often I couldn’t tell if I was irritated by the teenagers themselves or by Coppola’s portrayal of them.

Actor: Emma Roberts.Photographer: Courtesy of Tribeca Film

April (the charming Emma Roberts), a nice but unremarkable girl, is apparently the only virgin in her high school. She’s on the school’s soccer team, she’s studious but with mixed results, she smokes (but who doesn’t?), and she might have a crush on her soccer coach Mr. B., played by Franco (who wouldn’t?). She is also in love with schoolmate Teddy (Jack Kilmer), who is in love with her, but for some reason the two do not communicate their feelings to one another.

Actor: Jack Kilmer.Photographer: Courtesy of Tribeca Film

Teddy has a talent for drawing, but he’s also a screw-up who commits a minor hit-and-run while intoxicated and gets busted for it. Will this young man live up to his potential? Or will he succumb to the destructive forces in and outside himself? One of the latter is personified by his best friend Fred (Nat Wolff), also a talented young man – his talent is music – whose unpredictable and often dangerous antics, like running his car into a wall for fun or cutting down a tree in a park with a chainsaw, might well lead to his and his friend’s undoing.

Nat Wolff in 'Palo Alto' (Tribeca Film)

The problem for me is that I don’t care. From the start there are too many little things that make me distrust the filmmaker. The kids guzzle hard alcohol but they don’t get drunk until it’s convenient for the script. Little plot twists don’t feel believable, which doesn’t even matter because they don’t really affect anything. Most of Coppola’s observations feel too general; nuance is lacking in the extreme, characters feel generic. And when they speak too often it sounds like a writer is putting words in their mouths.

James Franco and Emma Roberts in 'Palo Alto' (Tribeca Film)

The teens’ understated, “naturalistic” performances look ok, I guess, until some of the more experienced actors take the stage, like the excellent Chris Messina, who does an outstanding job in a cameo as Fred’s creepy, pot-smoking father. Or Val Kilmer, who has a bit as April’s stoner stepdad. Or Franco. When one of these three is in a scene, the screen suddenly fills with the energy that is unfortunately lacking when it’s just the kids up there. Probably the biggest problem is that there’s simply not enough drama. We don’t learn about the characters by watching how they overcome obstacles. They just do things, such as draw penises in a children’s book or carve a heart into a tree, and that’s it, that’s who they are. Nothing feels particularly difficult for them. Even the love story between April and Teddy is inconsequential.

Actor: Zoe Levin.Photographer: Courtesy of Tribeca Film

As a result, big-picture wise, the world Coppola creates feels inauthentic, as though its essence comes not from the world of teenagers but from movies about teenagers. Her film has very little to say, certainly not enough for its 100 minute runtime, and what it does say has already been said many times before and better. Perhaps she’s just unable to articulate her ideas in this instance, a skill which may come with experience. Or maybe she wasn’t up to the task of getting relatively inexperienced young actors to do what she needed. Whatever the case, Palo Alto doesn’t make for very interesting viewing.

James Franco in 'Palo Alto' (Tribeca Film)

photos © Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival

Palo Alto
Rabbit Bandini Productions
USA – 2013 – Color – 100 min.
US premiere at Tribeca Film Festival
for screening times, visit Tribeca
opens May 9, 2014 in New York and Los Angeles
followed by a national release

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