Palo Alto is an engaging exploration of adolescence, a solid first step for a director worth watching.
By Jessica Keller
It’s so common that films are discussed in the context of their collaborators- who directed, who shot, who executive produced and threw their support (and reputation) in the ring. We want to know who is starring and with whom, who attended the premiere and what they were wearing. Fortunately most independent films are liberated from this kind of conversation, their creatives and talent untested, and from a press perspective, far less interesting. Not Palo Alto, a personal coming-of-age drama from first-time director Gia Coppola. Already her name brings expectation, as names tend to do. There’s something special about discussing a film without them. Abandoning our attention to “who”, we can focus on “what”, analyze a piece as nothing but what it is.
Perhaps this is why someone named Gia Coppola would admirably opt to direct Palo Alto alone, bringing James Franco’s Palo Alto Stories to the screen without the assistance of her family. It’s why I’ve decided not to linger on film legacies or the star presence of Franco and lead Emma Roberts. Simply, a group of talented people came together to make a film.
Nat Wolff & Jack Kilmer as Fred & Teddy in Palo Alto.
Like the press surrounding it, Palo Alto opens with high expectation. Reckless teens Teddy (Jack Kilmer) and Fred (Nat Wolff) sit in Fred’s car, discussing who they would be in the “olden times”. Without hesitation, Teddy answers “the king”, not the least bit shy to share his dreams of glory. But his world isn’t a regal one. Teddy, a frustrated stoner with a history of misbehavior, is assigned community service for a hit-and-run. Coppola has found a promising newcomer in Kilmer. His performance is understated but genuine, and I found myself quickly attached and convinced by the character. He’s a fitting companion, and foil, for April (Roberts), an innocent girl who teeters between her crush on Teddy and the attentions of her soccer coach Mr. B (Franco). April is perhaps one of the film’s more intriguing characters, a simple study of a young woman who doesn’t know what she wants, who identifies as “good” and smokes habitually. Her classmate Emily (Zoe Levin) is more conventional, a desperate girl who explores sex as an avenue to love. Her search leads her to Fred, a defiant ball of energy whose tough guy façade hides a soul that’s a push away from chaos.
James Franco and Emma Roberts as Mr. B & April.
Coppola deftly juggles their stories, California teens lost in a maze amid childhood and adulthood. We’re constantly reminded of their youth: Fred and Teddy talk on a playground, April’s mom insists she’s a baby, Teddy makes wishes on cigarette packs. During certain segments of Teddy and April’s story, oppressive voiceovers persist, the drone of adults who prod, question and order. Even the color palette follows the theme, understated but effective. Subdued blues, grays and greens of the real world strangle yellow, a hint of youthful color that strains to pop through. But the film is most arresting on a micro level, when Coppola pauses from dramatic devices and developments to examine the microscopic. Two of best examples are in Emily and Teddy’s rooms, when the camera slows to showcase their childhood photos and toys, all the details that make them who they are, and remind us they’re children. A similar instance comes later in the film, when April’s star necklace and day-of-the-week underwear chill and compel. It’s in these moments we begin to find something. I just wish we stayed there.
Wolff and Zoe Levin. Zoe plays Emily.
Like it’s protagonists, Palo Alto carries a sense of uncertain promise. It’s a picture that doesn’t quite know itself, a collection of unfinished thoughts we’ve heard before. Though it lacks the complexity of films like Perks of Being a Wallflower and The Spectacular Now, Palo Alto is an engaging exploration of adolescence, a solid first step for a director worth watching.
Emma Roberts, stunning in Palo Alto.
Palo Alto opens up at Maitland’s Enzian Theater on June 13th. We will post our interview with Director Gia Coppola sometime next week.
Jessica Keller is a cinematographer, photographer, writer and director based in Orlando, FL. She is currently pursuing a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Film Production at the University of Central Florida. Her interest lies in capturing a genuine human element through the lens.