Palo Alto

Posted by Joel Copling on June 5, 2014

There is a certain aimlessness to "Palo Alto" that is both frustrating and rather appealing to its characters' sense of aimlessness. Here are two vignettes (and perhaps a third one that intertwines with the more prevalent of those two) about kids who don't really know where they're going, what they're doing, or who will be their ride home after this party. The result, as written and directed by Gia Coppola (Roman and Sofia's niece and Francis Ford's granddaughter) and adapted from James Franco's series of short stories of the same name, is a bit aimless itself--not to mention familiar, as the screenplay presents two (or three) stories we've seen before. Coppola's laid-back directorial signature (an imitation of Aunt Sofia's, really), Autumn Durald's golden-hued cinematography, and a quattro of sympathetic performances manage to engage just enough for the film to work.

The first and more prominent of the vignettes concerns Teddy (Jack Kilmer, innocent but, underneath the facade, perhaps damaged), a kid with a record and a terminal case of apathy toward even sexual favors at the weekly (or so it seems) high school party. He has a friend in Fred (Nat Wolff, sometimes frighteningly authentic), a pot-smoking, beer-chugging, possibly suicidal loser who doesn't want anything from anyone except the simplest of connections, but when Teddy's involved in a car accident while under the influence of both drugs and alcohol, he's forced to carry out community hours to help. (Pay close attention to Fred's reaction when Teddy explicitly states he'd rather be sorting books at the library than smoking pot with him, and the nuances of Wolff's terrific performance will make themselves known.)

The second and more affecting of the vignettes follows April (Emma Roberts, sweet-natured but smarter than to be prone to blind faith), who has scatterbrained, inattentive parents (Her father, played by Val Kilmer, "corrects" one of her essays by re-writing it, and she gets a failing grade as a result) and a huge crush on her soccer coach, Mr. B (Franco). The coach is a predator that preys on the members of his own soccer class, but the catch is that he's a wonderful poseur who claims to love her. She babysits his son Michael (Micah Nelson) and loses her virginity to Mr. B (Coppola's representation of this sequence is particularly striking, cutting between the actual encounter and shadow-heavy close-up shots of April's empty reaction). She and Teddy, who shared a free-spirited moment only months before, draw closer together almost by chance, and we as the audience approve: Each of these lost souls is compatible to the other, and they need each other in a real way.

Another character drifts in and out of the proceedings: She is Emily, played by Zoe Levin in a performance as generous of raw truth as it is relatively brief (in comparison to Roberts' and the younger Kilmer's screen time, that is). She's the one who offers Teddy (and, to her surprise and slowly dislike, Fred) sexual favors at a party and receives nothing but an empty bedroom in return. She's the most real emotional core that "Palo Alto," which offers situations of an increasingly formulaic type, truly has. It's that kind of sympathy that helps "Palo Alto" to excel beyond its meandering qualities. It does, finally, work as a portrait of aimlessness, not merely as the practice of it.

Film Information

Jack Kilmer (Teddy), Nat Wolff (Fred), Emma Roberts (April), Olivia Crocicchia (Chrissy), Claudia Levy (Shauna), James Franco (Mr. B), Zoe Levin (Emily), Chris Messina (Mitch), Val Kilmer (Stewart), Colleen Camp (Sally Grossman), Marshall Bell (Jake), Margaret Qualley (Raquel), Talia Shire (Mrs. Ganem), Micah Nelson (Michael), Timothy Starks (Police Officer).

Directed and written by Gia Coppola, based on the short stories by James Franco.

Rated R (sexual content, drug/alcohol use, pervasive language).

100 minutes.

Released in select cities on May 9, 2014.