DIR/WRI: Gia Coppola • PRO: Vince Jolivette, Miles Levy, Sebastian Pardo, Adriana Rotaru • DOP: Autumn Durald ED: Leo Scott • DES: Sarah Beckum Jamieson • MUS: Robert Schwartzman, Devonté Hynes • CAST: Emma Roberts, Jack Kilmer, Nat Wolff, James Franco, Val Kilmer, Chris Messina
Directed by Gia Coppola, the latest scion of the Coppola filmmaking dynasty, Palo Alto adapts a handful of short stories by James Franco (who also appears and co-produces) into a loosely-structured narrative about disaffected teenagers in the eponymous Californian region. Jack Kilmer (son of Val) and Emma Roberts (daughter of Eric and niece of Julia) play Teddy and April, two teenagers whose nascent attraction is complicated by Teddy’s friendship with the volatile Fred (Nat Wolff) and by April’s affair with her smarmy soccer coach (Franco). While Coppola’s focus on troubled teenagers carries some echoes of her grandfather Francis’s Rumble Fish (1983), the film most openly quotes her aunt Sofia, with one character’s wall emblazoned with a poster for her 1997 film The Virgin Suicides.
This terrain is well trodden, and not only by Coppolas. While Palo Alto’s dreamy suburban ambience is at times distinguished from that of The Virgin Suicides only by the present day setting, its sexual frankness invokes two collaborations between Larry Clarke and Harmony Korine, 1995’s notorious Kids and 2002’s little-seen Ken Park. These are certainly interesting poles between which to be suspended, but Palo Alto struggles to rise above the sum of its influences. Even the easy-on-the-ear score by Robert Schwartzman and Devonté Hynes (Blood Orange) is most notable for the way in which it juggles reference points, almost all of which originate in the ’80s.
Coppola scores highest with her two central performances. As the confused but essentially decent Teddy, Kilmer has a tender, introverted quality reminiscent of a young River Phoenix, most obviously in a hushed fireside confession of love that echoes a similar scene in My Own Private Idaho (1991). The film belongs, though, to Roberts, who is a revelation as April. Coppola’s sympathetic exploration of April’s confusion as she edges toward adult life is reminiscent of her aunt’s work with Scarlett Johansson and Kirsten Dunst, but Palo Alto works despite this familiarity because Roberts, like Johansson and Dunst, has the kind of mysterious quality that can make somebody else’s boredom and frustration compelling to watch.
The same can’t be said for Nat Wolff, saddled with the grating part of Fred, an obnoxious budding sociopath who doesn’t develop much shading, beyond an occasional sulk, as the film unfolds. Phoned in from the pages of early Bret Easton Ellis, the juvenile Fred exists solely to provide dramatic counterpoint to April and Teddy’s cautious steps towards adulthood. Nobody even passingly familiar with Franco’s half-baked career as an occasional visual and performance artist will be surprised, either, that Fred’s escalating fury eventually boils over into a stilted monologue about homosexuality. As heat-seeking gay tourism goes, it’s not quite on the level of Franco’s own Interior. Leather Bar (2013), but if we’re supposed to infer that Fred’s borderline psychosis stems from suppressed desires, there might have been a more nuanced way to get this across than through an artificial speech, delivered apropos of nothing in particular, in a parking lot.
Curiously, given its title, Palo Alto does not convey much sense of a particular place or time. This lack of specificity is both weakness and strength. While the familiarity of the film’s style and content edges it perilously close to the generic, Coppola’s affinity for the eternal struggles of teenagers gives it a universal quality. Empathic without being indulgent, and anchored by Roberts’ performance, Palo Alto hints at an intriguing future for Coppola, especially now that her debt of influence is comprehensively paid off.
Palo Alto is released 17th October 2014