Allowing us a further glimpse into the Coppola filmmaking dynasty Palo Alto marks the debut of Francis Ford’s granddaughter Gia Coppola. Certainly Francis’ heritage looms large here but Gia’s more intimate stylings owe more to her aunt Sofia Coppola’s way of looking at disenchanted youths both rebelling and trying to find their place in the world.
Based on the collection of short stories by James Franco Palo Alto sees a collection of high schoolers rebelling against the world, flirting with romance and indulging in sex, drugs and all manner of other teen angst. April (Emma Roberts) is a shy virgin, happily smoking but keeping on the fringes of social groups she soon develops a crush on her soccer coach Mr. B (Franco) who she also babysits for. Teddy (Jack Kilmer) is generally a good kid but when hanging out with best friend Fred (Nat Wolff) increasingly gets into trouble with the law. Meanwhile Emily (Zoe Levin) is desperate for affection and willing to offer sexual favours to her male classmates in the hope of finding any semblance of it.
If the thought of watching a group of privileged kids kick against the seemingly adult free society they live in sounds like hard work then Palo Alto will only confirm that sentiment. This much more from the school of thought of Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring but with a little more heart and a little less satire. Gia instills her characters with a sense of reality, April in particular acting as an emotional anchor with which to ground the film, but never really allows us to feel for them.
It’s neither a coming-of-age story nor a high school survival guide, for a film that ticks those boxes seek out The Perks Of Being A Wallflower, but rather a scathing insight into the world that these youths occupy. Franco supposedly based much of the stories in his source material on his own experiences growing up in the titular town and as such you have to wonder if he isn’t entitled to some free therapy. Because within the film it’s rare that adults play a part in their children’s lives, either smoking too many drugs themselves, constantly on the phone gossiping or, as is often the case here, making passes at those much younger than them.
So we’re left to find solace in the youngsters. Jack Kilmer gives a quietly understated performance as the troubled Teddy while Nat Wolff demonstrates a character in desperate need of some prescription medication to clam is wild ways. Franco is charming as Mr. B and able to mask his leering qualities. The stand out is Roberts who offers an insight into a shrinking violent desperate to blossom in a seemingly sun deprived world.
A delicately handled drama and one that marks potential for Gia Coppola, Palo Alto is nonetheless too much like its characters; vacuous, aimless and self-indulgent.