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East End Film Festival: Palo Alto – Review
June 22, 2014
It’d be too easy to dismiss Palo Alto as yet another experiment in James Franco’s (now risibly out-of-control) self-indulgence, given how despite his marginal role he still manages to put his name front and center. The film in fact starts off with a JAMES FRANCO (and production company) PRESENT title card and his name is the first one to show up in the closing credits, even if his character is the farthest thing from being a protagonist. Fair enough though, the film is indeed adapted from his collection of short stories of the same name but then you also do the math about the recently surfaced episode of him allegedely hitting on a minor via Instagram plus his role in this film as coach of the high school’s female soccer team who hooks up with one of his students. Publicity stunt anyone?
If we really want to play the cynical game then I could go on about the inevitable implications of writer/director Gia Coppola’s illustrious pedigree in her ability to get this feature film debut made within an industry where any another up-and-comer might wait forever to snatch that chance. After all, her legendary grandfather even lends his voice (uncredited) to the Judge that reads the probation sentence to Teddy, one of the main characters, after he gets busted for DUI on a hit and run. But again, such silly talk would be preposterous in the process of analyzing and critiquing Palo Alto. The only thing that matters in the end is what we see and hear on the silver screen and as far as that goes I must say that this is a solid debut that’s undoubtedly well shot and well acted but that frankly doesn’t leave any particular impression as much as it doesn’t bring anything fresh to the table as a portrait of awkwardly lost youth.
I haven’t got the chance to read James Franco’s source material but I’ve found a detailed synopsis of it and it looks like Gia Coppola’s adaptation of these short stories focuses on three characters in particular, combining elements from the other stories which is understandable as an attempt to make things cinematic. Yet, the final result is a film that lacks a strong narrative drive and feels like a stylish collage of vignettes illustrating the fucked up life of the average American teenager rather than a cohesive story. If her intention was to juggle an ensemble of characters bound to collide, I guess something is blatantly missing. And if the whole point of this choice is to mirror the chaos and disconnect in the life of these confused teenagers, it feels like Miss Coppola solely focused on style rather than substance, saying nothing new on the topic but also not offering anything fresh as far as form goes and coming off simply as trying to channel Gus Van Sant and her aunt Sofia.
The film’s title refers to the California town where the film is set and where Franco is originally from, although there’s nothing peculiar that refers to the locale in the film and that’s most likely intentional, suggesting the suburban anonymity of these alienated teenage lives. The primary players in this ensemble are introverted artist and stoner Teddy (promising newcomer Jack Kilmer), his over-the-top (but deep down hurting) buffoon of a friend Fred (an outstanding Nat Wolff) and the shy, sensitive April (an impressive Emma Roberts) who wears her virginity like a burden. These kids have a few main things in common: absentee/crazy parents, lack of direction and inability to connect. If it rings the bell it’s ‘cause we’ve seen all this before…
As they navigate the typical teenage shenanigans of sex, drugs, alcohol and other silly bravado, their paths intertwine. There’s an evident mutual attraction between Teddy and April but also an equally mutual inability to communicate their feelings to each other, resulting in Teddy getting a blow job from slutty Emily (Zoe Levin) and April falling into the pervy net of her divorced soccer coach, Mr. B (James Franco). April babysits his son sometimes and when she finds herself at the most vulnerable state, in need of validation, she winds up losing her virginity to him. Meanwhile Teddy has been busted for a DUI on a hit and run and since it’s not the first time he gets in trouble with the law, he is given a final warning probation with community service.
Thing is that Fred, Teddy’s supposed best friend with a fetish for excess, clearly is not a good influence as Teddy struggles to focus and get his shit together, despite being a good kid at heart. When he starts doing community service at a children’s library, Fred’s unexpected visit results in disaster and Teddy’s community service is moved to a nursing home but truth is that Fred has his own demons behind that “living dangerously” act. He hooks up with slutty Emily whose sluttyness is just an insecurity complex and who actually seems to like Fred but the reality is that Fred is extremely messed up and soon starts to spiral out of control, jeopardizing his friendship with Teddy. On the other hand April is predictably bound to discover the true pervy colours of Mr. B and hopefully realize that she needs to reconnect with people her own age.
I must say that despite an objectionably messy middle section the film has an interesting epilogue that doesn’t exactly tie things up neatly but does so not in a pretentious wannabe-cool-by-leaving-things-up-in-the-air way, but actually with a quite organic, true-to-the-characters stylish conclusion. The strength of Palo Alto lies in its cast who elevate an otherwise conventional material. Newcomer Jack Kilmer, at his debut here, shows enormous potential with his naturalism and extremely nuanced performance. Emma Roberts has never been this good and she perfectly nails how to make her character feel real rather than a stereotype. Last but not least, Nat Wolff who’s currently in cinemas in The Fault In Our Stars, proves once again to be one of the most talented up and comers of his generation. His emotional range is astounding in this role.
I wish I could say Gia Coppola’s debut caught my attention the way The Virgin Suicides put her aunt Sofia on my radar fifteen years ago. Some critics have likened the two films but I actually found Palo Alto closer to The Bling Ring (which I didn’t exactly love by the way) and it definitely reminded me a bit of Van Sant’s Paranoid Park, albeit miles away from that film’s focused narrative and atmospheric style. That said, she’s done a good job directing actors and the film is visually pleasing plus she’s a Coppola, so that hopefully should be auspicious for the continuation of her career. Only time will tell…
Palo Alto is screening tonight, Sunday June 22nd at the East End Film Festival.
All info and tickets of today’s screenings here.
Francesco Cerniglia – Film Editor