Published Sep 22, 2013In the opening scene of Gia Coppola's (Francis Ford Coppola's granddaughter) directorial debut, an adaptation of James Franco's short story collection, Palo Alto, Fred (Nat Wolff), in the midst of discussing how to handle omniscient power with best friend Teddy (Jack Kilmer), drives his car into a wall on purpose. Later, when the pair are wandering around town after dark with April (Emma Roberts), a reluctant goody two-shoes, Fred notes that his approach to the world is anarchic, wanting to tear down institutional propriety in an effort to obtain freedom, while April states that she just tries to be as nice as possible, aiding in making everyone else's experience in this world as pain free as possible. Teddy, when asked, just shrugs his shoulders.
Though Palo Alto presents as a story about nothing, detailing a destructive friendship between Teddy and Fred when not capturing the discomforting sexual tension between April and her soccer coach Mr. B (James Franco) when she babysits for him after hours, how opposing values and worldviews interact creates a narrative unto itself.
Teddy, who's seen early on drunk driving and waxing obnoxious with a police officer, vacillates between destructive, irreverent behaviour and status quo normalcy. While doing community service at the local library, he establishes a professional routine and endears himself to his superiors, similarly making a positive impression on April, who sees something in him beyond the sensationalized angst he projects. It's clear that Teddy's tendency towards socially abject behaviour is influenced by Fred. When left to himself, he tends to adhere to convention, but is easily swayed by his perpetually angst-ridden and enraged friend.
We get a hint of where his innate rage stems from when Teddy smokes a joint with—and resultantly receives unwanted sexual advances from—Fred's father (Chris Messina), but categorizing and attributing guiding characteristics to a single signifier isn't what Palo Alto is about.
April, though prone to vice like every other character, is simultaneously pleasant and surly; a virgin that doesn't shy away from drinking and smoking at a party. Her idealism and optimism, being the one character with the promise to escape the cycles of destructive behaviour that will eventually define them all, is, in a way, the antagonist of the film.
Initially, despite being conscious of Mr. B's special attention, she quietly pursues Teddy, stepping back when Emily (Zoe Levin), a classmate that uses sex as a means of obtaining the fleeting validation that's otherwise absent from her life, gives him a blowjob at a party. That sexuality is such a casual, depressing reality to everyone else helps influence her to accept the tender, more experienced and obliquely traditional advances of Mr. B, something that exacerbates her crushed idealism when she acknowledges his similar tendency towards vice.
The compounding influence of each character on another as a tapestry defining persisting worldly disappointment is the guiding trajectory. Every time someone has an idea or is motivated by something that excites them, a differing perspective or an inconsiderate action from someone else crushes and distorts it.
Coppola's mostly laid back direction observes this dynamic effectively, allowing everything to unfold as a collective without specified judgement or forced perspective, but its inconsistency is what ultimately subdues the potential effects of Palo Alto's deconstruction of teen angst.
When capturing female objectification and willing victimization, such as April's loss of virginity and Emily's lack of self-respect, Coppola inserts extremely effective, highly moving, stylizations that add layers of substance and depth that wouldn't otherwise be present. The close-ups and candid angles of April's reactions and contextual youth—while engaging in sex, she appears diminutive and fearful—as well as the dreamlike montage accompanying a voiceover outlining Emily's eventual acceptance of passive objectification, allowing herself to be screwed by multiple men in a single night, demonstrate an astute vision that's otherwise absent.
These brief moments of beauty, demonstrating some visionary talent and emotional acuity in the latest Coppola to try directing, also make it clear how tenuously everything else was handled. What's clear is that should Gia Coppola tackle a narrative specifically about feminine existential angst and sexuality as a projection of worldview, embracing her stylistic instincts in the process, she could make an amazing piece of cinema. With Palo Alto, she's made a thought provoking and effective piece of cinema that probably could have been more than what it is.