‘Palo Alto’ depicts teens rebelling without a cause. These upper-middle class teenagers aren’t studying for their SATs and applying to their favorite colleges. No, they are having sex, smoking dope, making poor decisions and getting into trouble. At times, the story is dark and disjointed. Yet, it is still a stylishly composed directorial debut from Gia Coppola. Her aunt is Sofia Coppola and her grandfather is Francis Ford Coppola. Gia follows in Sofia’s (Lost in Translation, The Bling Ring) footsteps observing the privileged and disaffected class. The film is inspired by a collection of short stories by James Franco. It works due to the haunting cinematography of Autumn Durald and an incredibly talented cast of newcomers.
Besides Gia coming from Hollywood nepotism (not a bad thing), the two leads Emma Roberts (her father is Eric Roberts and her aunt is Julia Roberts) and Jack Kilmer (son of Val Kilmer who also has a bit part in the film), both give rich performances. April (Roberts) and Teddy (Kilmer) both go to the same suburban high school. They barely utter two words at each other as they pass in the hallway but there is a definite attraction between the two. Their lives interlock with one another as they go to the same house parties and hang out with the same social circle. They aren’t bad teenagers but they make some really dumb choices. Teddy has casual sex with a girl Emily (Zoe Levin) at a house party and hangs out with a real troublemaker named Fred (Nat Wolff). Poor Emily gets taken advantage of a lot as she confuses promiscuity with romance.
April is known as the class virgin. She’s not a bad student and although she makes bad decisions in the film, you just know she will be all right once she graduates. Gia perfectly captures that awkward time between high school and early adulthood. There is a telling scene between April and a high school counselor (played by an unrecognizable Talia Shire). April has no idea where she wants to go to college. It’s so frustrating she runs into the restroom to weep. April plays on the soccer team that is coached by Mr. B (Franco). Franco is good in addition to being creepy as the popular soccer coach. Always grinning, he gives her just a bit more attention than he does to the other girls on the team. She babysits his son and as he comes home from a bad date, he hits on her. It’s an awkward moment that you just know will lead to no good.
Gia never judges her characters similar to Sofia’s film ‘The Bling Ring.’ Although April and Teddy get into trouble, she cares about them and we do too. Although the film is set in Palo Alto, the nerve center of Silicon Valley, besides an occasional Apple laptop and smartphone, the story could have taken place in any affluent suburban town. Franco actually grew up in Palo Alto therefore the focus of the story. In a recent interview, Gia stresses how important it was for her to make this film without the help of her famous movie-making pedigree. It’s an impressive freshman effort. She’s on her way to establishing a unique voice in cinema with ‘Palo Alto.’
The cast is equally impressive. In particular, Emma Roberts and Jack Kilmer are the standouts. Roberts gives her character the right balance of sensitivity and innocence. Kilmer gives off a natural magnetism in his screen debut. Levin is also moving as the promiscuous Emily. She is one to watch too. Gia gets good performances from everyone in the cast. The parents are portrayed almost like adult caricatures in the ‘Peanuts’ comic strip. They mean well but are so distracted with their lives, the teens move from scene to scene like they are in a dreamlike state of confusion. April muses, “I do things all the time for no reason. An adult replies back, “Because you’re young.” Check out the official trailer http://youtu.be/sTqMUu1iTIo.