Based on a handful of James Franco’s short stories, and directed by Gia Coppola (her debut), Palo Alto captures adolescence with both a clear and jaundiced eye. The wasted youth that populate this Northern California town are teenagers who have little direction in their lives. It is not for nothing that Fred (Nat Wolff) drives his car into a wall in the opening scene. (Don’t worry; it’s done as a lark, and no one is hurt).
The film depicts several overlapping lives, each one engaging, even if the types are familiar. That the young characters flirt with danger and desire is part of what makes Palo Alto so alluring. April (Emma Roberts) is on the soccer team, but she plays almost half-heartedly. The coach Mr. B (Franco) encourages her, but it may be just a ploy to have April babysit his son, or to flirt with her, which he does.
April is vulnerable, and the gifted Roberts conveys her awkwardness with noticeable aplomb. When she shrugs her shoulders in nonchalance, or corrupts Mr. B’s son with naughty TV, she is absolutely authentic.
April harbors a crush on Teddy (Jack Kilmer; Val’s son), a screw up who gets into some real trouble when he hits a stranger’s car while driving drunk and then drives off. Forced to do community service, Palo Alto suggests that Teddy might actually straighten up and fly right. However, to do this, he realizes, he needs to stay away from his coconspirator, Fred, who is becoming an increasingly more dangerous troublemaker. Fred’s father (Chris Messina) is also no good; he gets a little too friendly with Teddy during an encounter in Fred’s house in another one of the film’s enjoyably uncomfortable sequences.
Parents are mostly on the sidelines in the film, and the focus on the kids—their parties and their private moments—provide telling details about their morals or lack of them. When Teddy tells his sister that he wants to be alone in his room, his despair and frustration are palpable.
This is what is so fantastic about Palo Alto; Coppola wisely never judges these self-absorbed characters, many of whom behave badly. The girls on April’s soccer team are chatty and nasty; they have a sense of entitlement that might prompt viewers to ask: What exactly are these over-privileged kids entitled to? Perhaps it is just their need for acceptance and affection. One of the film’s more alarming stories concerns Emily (Zoe Levin), a teen who has sex with various guys. When she meets Fred, who treats her pretty badly, it prompts one of the film’s more intense confrontations.
It is in the dramatic scenes like these that Palo Alto is especially captivating. Coppola’s film is gorgeously filmed, with images—Teddy and Fred about to cut down a tree with a chainsaw, or a car driving on the wrong side of the highway—that are haunting. And there is real emotion as April’s story unfolds, even if there are few surprises with what transpires.
Palo Alto is less a cautionary tale (though it can certainly be read as one) and more a fictional account of characters that are probably closer to reality than one might like or hope. And that may be why this film is so effective.