Palo Alto is a directorial debut of Gia Coppola (Francis Ford Coppola’s granddaughter and Sofia Coppola’s niece), based on James Franco’s collection of short stories which Gia herself adapted for screen. Sofia, currently one of the most acclaimed and recognizable female directors, was clearly a great influence on her 27-years old niece, who decided to follow her aunt’s footsteps into the world of cinema. It is also clear that Gia has talent and that her debut is not merely a result of nepotism, but Palo Alto‘s main problem is that it’s too similar to Sofia’s cinematic style (and little details, like a poster of Kirsten Dunst from The Virgin Suicides in April’s room are not particularly helping with that). This is a solid film debut, but only time will show if Gia’s capable of finding her own, authentic film style and step out of a shadow of her aunt’s career.
Gia Coppola is not the only one from Palo Alto crew who comes from an established Hollywood family. Film’s main characters, Teddy and April (teenagers who are deeply infatuated with each other, but are unable to communicate their feelings), are played by Jack Kilmer (Val Kilmer’s son) and Emma Roberts (Julia Robert’s niece). Jack Kilmer does a great job playing a high school stoner who doesn’t quite know what he wants to do with his life, and his inexperience in acting makes Teddy’s struggles only more believable and authentic. Emma Roberts also does a fantastic job playing April, a somewhat dreamy girl who is trying to process all the emotions bottling inside of her. But a great surprise were also the supporting actors – extraordinary Nat Wolff as an arrogant, sociopathic and self-destructive Fred and Zoe Levin as Emily, who’s “never been in love” and tries to compensate her inability to emotionally connect with promiscuous behaviour, which only deepens her self-loathing and shatters her already low self-esteem. Coppola’s camera frequently stops in close-ups of her eyes, on her empty and sad look, which is probably a highpoint of Levin’s acting. Her eyes tell us more about her disconnection from everything and everyone, about her feeling of emptiness, than any words could.
Fred, who is hating everything and everyone around him, including himself, is a typical teenager who acts problematic and self-destructive in hope that someone will acknowledge his personal struggles. But no one seems to see past the surface of an idiot who brings nothing but trouble to anyone who spends time with him. Teddy, otherwise a shy and artistic guy, who is somehow intrigued and fascinated by Fred’s fearless behaviour, is probably his closest (if not the only) friend. But all he gets out of this friendship with Fred (who likes to live on the edge and is constantly pushing everyone around him beyond the boundaries of moral and acceptable) are his constant manipulations and community service.
And then there’s April who comes from a family of narcissistic “new age” parents, too involved with themselves to ever fully acknowledge her existence. Her stepfather (Val Kilmer) spends his days smoking hashish and playing video games, while her mother spends every waking hour on the phone with her personal guru. Despite all that, April seems like a stable person who somehow manages to balance her life of a good student and of an outgoing, social person who never misses the parties on the weekends. But her life gets shaken to the core when a grinning James Franco enters the picture. Franco (or rather her soccer coach Mr. B), who is also a dad for whom April frequently babysits, soon makes April weak in her knees with his straightforward affection.
Palo Alto is mainly a film about the difficult transition from childhood to adolescence; it’s about first sexual experiences, falling in love and attending decadent parties. It’s also about the time of unbearably heightened emotions, confusion and the inability of reflective thinking. As adolescents we don’t really have any other choice than to wait for the difficult period to pass – and this is exactly what Teddy and April are doing when they’re continually filmed in their rooms staring into the wall, lying on the bed, talking to themselves. Gia Coppola perfectly infiltrates this feeling of the adolescence into the film – probably because she’s still young enough to remember it realistically and not with romantic nostalgia, as so many people often do. But it is exactly this feeling, the melancholy and hedonism of young people, that strongly reminds us of Sofia Coppola’s work. Gia is, just like her aunt, using empty spaces (children’s rooms, playgrounds) to indicate the melancholy feeling of the teenagers and other minimalistic details (Barbie dolls, teddy bears, paper unicorns on the walls) to show the contrast of the childhood and adolescence and the dilemmas of the protagonists, already teenagers, who are still clinging to their childhood and are not yet ready to completely grow up.
Palo Alto is a great presentation of a lost generation that grew up with permissive parenting of narcissistic baby-boomers. But the audience is too often reminded of the fact that our protagonists are somehow still children. Gia’s camera is constantly stopping on the little childish details of their rooms, on their clothes and girlishly painted nails; so much, that the message slowly starts to lose its meaning. Emily’s character is also somewhat underdeveloped. We never get to know anything personal about her or about the reason of her promiscuous behaviour and constant objectification of herself. There is this one sequence with Frank’s voice-over narration where we get to know that she was a victim of a gang-rape for which he was responsible – but the crime is only briefly mentioned and never problematized. Nevertheless, it is a convincing film debut that leaves us in an anticipation of what will the young artist do next.
Directed by: Gia Coppola
Written by: Gia Coppola (adaptation of James Franco’s short stories)
Starring: Emma Roberts, Jack Kilmer, Nat Wolff, Zoe Levin, James Franco
Running Time: 100 minutes