Gia Coppola’s directorial debut, “Palo Alto,” goes where many films have gone before, depicting the dark side of affluent suburban teenagers. It comes off as a mashup of Coppola’s very evident influences, including Harmony Korine, Gus Van Sant and, of course, Auntie Sofia. Coppola is studied but has yet to find her own voice. Perhaps “Palo Alto” is an accurate depiction of modern youth, but it lacks the focus of its predecessors, making it not much more than a painful viewing experience.
I daresay the source material, Producer James Franco’s book of short stories, doesn’t do much to set itself apart either. His characters aren’t quite Bret Eason Ellis-level depraved, but they do have a tendency toward making poor decisions. Shy skate punk Teddy (Jack Kilmer) pals around with ticking time bomb Fred (Nat Wolff), partying with both hands and joy-riding afterward. Teddy’s crush, April, (Emma Roberts) wants to be a “good girl”, but she too lets off steam at these orgies of decadence. She also yearns to make a connection with someone – not easy considering they can hardly form coherent sentences. April is the smartest among them and even she is relatively inarticulate (“It’s whatever!”). They are the polar opposites of the “Dawson’s Creek” kids.
The narrative suggests that it’s not entirely their fault. Half the time, the pressure to misbehave comes from people who have aged well outside their peer group. What these kids have in common is what Sailor Ripley would call a lack of parental guidance. Teddy and April’s mothers are loving, but too busy to notice the warning signs. Rapist-in-training Fred’s dad is quite possibly a sexual predator himself. No wonder Fred equates sex with control.
It’s not that these kids aren’t ready for sex. But there’s a huge difference between teenage fornication and adult relations. April learns that the hard way (no pun intended) from Coach Franco Inappropes, who takes the “hitting on the babysitter” trope to a whole new level of ick. A peripheral character, Emily, also occupies a world of sexual confusion, exploring her curiosity with all the wrong people. Both girls are good examples of why the age of consent exists.
Emma Roberts’ performance is a highlight, as she breaks from her usual worldly and jaded roles to portray a very convincing insecure teenager. She’s so credible that her scenes with Franco’s manipulative pedophile soccer coach are truly upsetting, despite her actual age. But the pervert vérité also works against the film because it makes the whole viewing experience very unpleasant. I don’t necessarily need to feel comfortable to enjoy a film. I can’t remember when I’ve been more ill at-ease than during “Under the Skin”. But that movie worked for me because it expressed the familiar themes from a wholly unique (and fantastical) perspective. When “Palo Alto” ended, I was so relieved that I didn’t have to be watching it anymore.
The film is competently crafted, but it has a distinct first-film greenness. Cinematographer, Autumn Durald, recalls the beautiful, dream-like essence of Sofia Coppola’s “The Virgin Suicides” almost to the point of plagiarism. Many of her symbolistic shots are too on the nose, including close-ups of childish décor during a sexual encounter and another goddamned hand-out-the-car-window shot. Both Coppola and Durand show a lot of promise and it’s probably worth seeking out future endeavors. But you’d be forgiven for skipping this one.