Ah, the follies of youth – remember the kinds of high school parties where you think you’re super cool until you light the wrong end of a cigarette in front of a group of people? Good times. Palo Alto (2013) is directed by Gia Coppola (Francis Ford Coppola’s granddaughter, and Sofia Coppola’s niece), and is based on a short story collection of the same name, written by the one and only James Franco. It comprises a snapshot of four teenagers’ lives: April (Emma Roberts), whose crush on her soccer coach (James Franco) is getting serious; Teddy (Jack Kilmer), the lovable stoner who attracts trouble; Fred (Nat Wolff), a hyperactive and destructive young man looking for love; and Emily (Zoe Levin), whose overt sexuality is gaining her a reputation around school.
I read James Franco’s eponymous collection of short stories back when it was first released and didn’t really like it that much. I suppose I thought it was too pretentious and aware of itself, trying to be a more modern Less Than Zero (Bret Easton Ellis’ classic novella) without the drug-induced psychosis vibes. I was quite hyped to see Palo Alto as a result, because I felt that hopefully a director who isn’t James Franco would be able to edit the characters and stories down to create something more meaningful. Plus, when I saw the trailer for this, it looked absolutely splendid. I am pleased to inform everyone that this is a rare moment where the film is actually better than the book on which it is based!
I really enjoyed this film. I particularly loved Emma Roberts’ very natural performance as the quiet but darkly funny April, whose budding relationship with soccer coach Mr B was one of the creepiest elements of the whole thing. To his credit, James Franco really tries to not act like a stereotypically creepy older dude seducing a high school student, but there is something inherently creepy and unsettling about what we see in this film. In fact, all of the adults are either somewhat creepy, or irresponsible, or detached, which I found very interesting. Val Kilmer makes a nice appearance as April’s hashpipe-smoking stepdad who thinks it’s cool to completely re-write one of her assignments, and he looks completely out of it, which was funny. Jack Kilmer also puts in an excellent performance as Teddy, who you really want to succeed despite the negative influence of his crazy friends.
Visually, Palo Alto looks like it’s been shot using an Instagram filter, which paradoxically feels very modern despite its intentionally vintage-y or faded aesthetic. The direction is very Sofia Coppola-esque, with slow, dreamy panning shots and fades between scenes that reminded me a lot of The Virgin Suicides (1999); which is funny, because April has a big The Virgin Suicides film poster in her bedroom. To her credit, Gia Coppola does seem to be her own kind of filmmaker. She’ll probably always get compared to her very talented aunt, but this is a good kickoff point to distinguish herself from her famous filmmaking family. Of particular note is her attention to detail in contrasting the remainders of childhood in the characters’ bedrooms, such as stuffed animals, childish wall stickers and plastic jewellery, with emerging adolescent and adult behaviours such as having sex, taking drugs, and drinking copious amounts of alcohol. This was a nice visual nod to the conflict between staying young and growing up, which all young people face at some point.
I loved the use of music in Palo Alto. The whole thing is filled to the brim with dreamy modern pop music, synth that sounds like it’s straight out of Twin Peaks (also known as my favourite thing ever), and dramatic piano music that sets you on edge and makes you think something really bad is just about to happen. Then, halfway through the aforementioned dreamy pop and late-80s-early-90s-Badalamenti synth, something amazing like ‘Enter the Ninja‘ by Die Antwoord pops out at you and takes you by surprise. Those Coppola ladies really do know their music.
Random last point here, but I have to give credit to Gia Coppola for showing the use of smartphones in a non-cheesy way. Finally! There’s nothing worse than a film written by adults about ‘those crazy teens’ that treats smartphone usage in a really tacky manner, and it was handled very realistically and cleverly here.
Palo Alto is a funny kind of film because at the end, it doesn’t really give you a message to take home. This film isn’t plot-heavy, and I think that’s a good thing. There’s the sense that we’ve just dipped in and out of these teenagers’ lives, seen some pivotal moments, and then it’s up to them to take control of their destiny from here on out. It’s an interesting and visually stunning film about the conflicts that all young adults face in growing up – whether or not you can relate to April’s secret crush on an older man, or Freddy’s illegal shenanigans. Some moments of this film can be confronting, and certainly very painful; but it’s really just showing us what life is like for some kids nowadays, whether you want to believe it or not.
Watch the trailer here.
Watch this film on Amazon!