Teenagers are pitiful, terrible creatures. Hmm, that sounds a bit harsh, but here’s what I mean: They’re pitiful in that they deserve pity, and terrible in that they’re simply incomplete. They’re not fully formed people yet, and as such they don’t function very well. It’s a miracle any of us make it though adolescence intact.
Palo Alto, the debut feature film from Gia Coppola (Francis Ford Coppola’s granddaughter), digs into the these notions with a series of worst-case scenarios. Based on a short story collection by James Franco, the film follows a group of NoCal teens caroming dangerously around upper-middle-class suburbia.
Emma Roberts holds the center of the film as April, a generally good-hearted soccer player trying to navigate the treacherous waters of high school. Jack Kilmer (Val’s son) is Teddy, the sensitive artist who pines for April, but who is also in thrall to his bad-boy best friend, Fred.
Fred is serious trouble—clearly damaged and casually cruel, he likes drugs and knives and dramatic displays of recklessness. “I try to be good,” Emma says in a quiet moment. “Fuck good,” Fred replies: “Live the dangerous life.” Much of the movie takes place during high school parties which, apparently, haven’t changed much in 20 years: red Solo cups, truth-or-dare games, hard liquor, weed, skateboards, clove cigarettes, fireworks and vomiting. The smartphones are new.
We also meet several adults from the neighborhood, and they’re in no better shape than the kids. Soccer coach Mr. B (Franco) seduces his players, April’s step-dad Stewart (Val Kilmer, looking terrible) smokes pot all day in his home office, and Fred’s dad (Chris Messina) does drugs and seduces teens. The adults are either predatory or clueless, without exception.
Yes, it’s a bleak and largely humorless world in Palo Alto, and since writer/director Coppola doesn’t provide much in the way of plot, we’re left with little to watch besides character development. Roberts is the most convincing as April, especially in one heartbreaking scene when she realizes she has nowhere to turn.
Wasted youth movies have been around for a long, long time. But to work beyond the surface level, they need to have something to show other than wasted youths (and adults). Coppola is so staunchly non-judgmental about her characters that the film feels increasingly clinical and cold.
Palo Alto’s performances are strong, the cinematography (by Autumn Durald) is lovely and Coppola’s counterpoint images of childhood innocence occasionally bring some force. But the film possesses little sense of authority or conviction, or even point-of-view. These territories have been so thoroughly mapped—from Fast Times at Ridgemont High to Kids—that you better come strong with something to say besides “teenagers have it tough.”
We know. We’ve been there.