Gia Coppola’s debut feature “Palo Alto” is a well made but ultimately slight depiction of high school life in Palo Alto, California. Based on the book of short stories by James Franco of all people (who also has a small role), “Palo Alto” mainly centers on three restless, angst ridden teenagers --their grade isn’t explicitly stated but I assume either sophomore or junior--as they navigate their way through various social situations in high school life.
There’s April (Emma Roberts), the timid good girl who’s somewhat attracted to her benevolent and hip soccer coach Mr. B (Franco). Then there are the two self-destructive males, who have all sorts of angst and restlessness. First up there’s Teddy (Jack Kilmer), who seems to be upset that he’s not getting anywhere with April—at least, I think so—and as a result gets into trouble with the law, drunk driving and resisting arrest. Punk kid. However, he does get the chance to get his life back on track. And then there’s Teddy’s friend, Fred (Nat Wolff), who appears to just have a bone to pick with life in general and so he spends the whole movie just being irresponsible and annoying, alienating himself from his friends.
In fact that’s a good way to describe all three of these characters’ actions in the movie. They all intentionally alienate themselves from regular high school social life. They may interact with other normal high school students (like two attractive, gossiping gals) and attend parties, but they never really seem to fit in at any of these social gatherings, remaining right on the fringe. There are a lot of shots of them sitting or standing in places by themselves silently staring off into the distance, contemplating their existence. And so they act out.
As far as plot is concerned, there isn’t one. The film also doesn’t have much direction, I guess, because these teenagers don’t have much direction themselves. They just exist and don’t appear to have any long-term goals or aspirations. There’s only one mention of college in the entire movie, when April goes to a college counselor and when the counselor asks her what she wants to do she responds “I don’t know.” Their parents aren’t much help: they’re either absent or they don’t really care, often times just sitting around smoking weed while their kids do the same.
Gia Coppola is the granddaughter of Hollywood legend Francis Ford Coppola and the niece of Sofia Coppola (another talented director) and, like her aunt, Gia already has a fairly acute eye and ear for teenage life. All of the situations feel down to earth and the dialogue exchanges come off authentic, like in the opening scene when Teddy and Fred just sit in their car drinking and shooting the shit about whatever topic comes to mind. For the most part nothing feels overdone or artificial. The acting is also on par, all of the players looking and sounding like real teenagers.
Other than that, there’s not much else to say. “Palo Alto” is a competent film but it’s not very deep and it comes off rather insignificant. This isn’t exactly new ground that Coppola is covering and she doesn’t do enough with the material to take it to the next level. The characters will undoubtedly resemble teenagers you went/go to school with, but they don’t have much of an arc. And after a while it is sort of difficult to remain fully invested in them because they are, in the end, just spoiled Palo Alto teenagers in need of an extracurricular activity. Seriously. More than anything these kids are just bored. Why not get a hobby? Or a part time job?
Nevertheless, “Palo Alto” is a fine first feature and continues to show that the Coppola family has immense filmmaking talent.