There are very few films that evoke the intense emotions of teenage life with as much authenticity as Gia Coppola’s debut film, Palo Alto.
Watching it, I thought of films like Elephant, Paranoid Park, Thirteen, and The Perks of Being A Wallflower. Each of these movies creates an adolescent world filled with all the things we remember when we try hard enough – fears, raging hormones, boredom, the feeling of not being quite good enough in a myriad of ways, the sense that things could be or might become better if something falls into place or enough time passes, and every now and then glimmers of joy.
Coppola (niece of Sophia and granddaughter of Francis) adapted the screenplay from several short stories included in James Franco’s 2010 collection of the same name. Franco chose Coppola to make the film because he thought a younger vision (the writer-director is 27) would bring a fresh perspective and attract a new audience to his work.
To prepare for the project, she watched a lot of teenage stories. “More recent teenage fare, whether it’s TV or movies, features what is clearly 25-year-old actors with perfect hair, skin, makeup and clothes who aren’t styled in a way actual teenagers dress,” Coppola explains in press materials. “I wanted to see a movie that felt real to me featuring teenagers who are 17 and whose costumes consist of their own clothes, or clothes borrowed from friends. I wanted Palo Alto to feel both modern and timeless.”
Coppola hits the mark.
The film has five main characters, four high school students and a teacher. Emma Roberts is the emotional center of the film, and she gives a performance as a quiet, smart, yet popular student, April, a performance that slowly draws the viewer into the film then repeatedly raises the stakes. She transcends all of the stereotypes common to teenage films and is a bookish and athletic introvert.
April is drawn to Teddy (Jack Kilmer – son of Val Kilmer and Joanne Whalley in his debut acting role), a sweet artist who always seems on the edge of trouble, much of it because of his unpredictable and destructive friend Fred (Nat Wolff), who gives an explosive performance. Seeing Fred hook up with Chrissy (Olivia Orocicchia), the girl in their school who uses sex to try to connect emotionally with boys, would feel clichéd if less skillfully rendered in the film.
A portion of my scholarly writing (The Hollywood Curriculum: Teachers in the Movies and Teacher TV: Sixty Years of Teachers on Television, the latter co-authored with Laura R. Linder) has been devoted to representations of teachers in popular culture. Seeing James Franco as Mr. B, a soccer coach, teacher, and single dad who manipulates the high school students who play on his team and babysit for him, gives me something new to write about in this vein: the predatory teacher. Palo Alto is rich territory for me in its depiction of this “bad” teacher and the social landscape of high school.
For these reasons, I think Palo Alto is an important film, but it’s also a satisfying film for viewers without my specialized interests. In turn tender and terrifying, the movie is never predictable and doesn’t strike a false note.
I relish its leisurely pacing as an unfolding that reminds me how I marked time back in high school with more than a touch of hurry up and wait embedded into each day with classes and homework and extracurricular activities interrupted occasionally by a conversation with a cute boy or even a date. The episodic nature of the scenes featuring the various characters is joined nicely by a plot that brings everything together by the end of the film in as much of a resolution as high school can really offer without dissolving into formula, and we would not want that.
This is an auspicious debut for Gia Coppola, a promising new talent.