It’s dangerous for a film like Palo Alto to have a character openly confess that movies nowadays are pointless. You expect that character to look straight into the camera and sigh.
I was left sighing while I watched Gia Coppola’s feature film debut. I was also skeptically furrowing my eyebrows and skewing expressions in my stupor. Palo Alto could easily be resold as a workout video for voice actors.
Coppola has taken stories written by actor James Franco and worked them into a halfhearted, disjointed movie. In reality, instead of crossbreeding all these slices of life, Palo Alto should’ve taken the route The Rules of Attraction travels in its first ten minutes. Each story should’ve been given its own time to shine, but Coppola refuses to allow her film to be an anthology piece, and would rather pitch all these stories as a blanketed coming-of-age tale set in senior high.
Palo Alto wouldn’t have been fixed altogether if had decided to be individualized sagas of brooding teenage turmoil, but the change would’ve made the viewing experience much more natural. Each character would’ve been given an appropriate amount of time to be meaningful.
Because Coppola and her team of misguided producers have taken the wrong turn at Albuquerque (or, Altoquerque), the stars of Palo Alto have been given a limited time to make their prominence worthwhile. This often leads to rushed epiphanies and scrambled attempts at character development.
The film lets April’s story lead the pack with Teddy’s teenage tantrums nabbing a close second. April (played by Emma Roberts) is not exactly popular, but sidesteps being generic. Her soccer coach Mr. B (played by James Franco) appreciates when she babysits his son and makes sure she knows this through his “welcoming” personality. April finds herself in the middle of a battle between her smarts and her vulnerability.
Teddy (played by Jack Kilmer) hangs out with a bad influence and has mistaken him for a compadre. Neither he or Fred (played by an irritatingly unhinged Nat Wolff) ever seem to get along, but they “get” each other. When Teddy tries to redeem himself after some bad behaviour, Fred innocently pulls him down another dead end.
Gia Coppola has, perhaps, decided to tell the film in a linear path to signify a lapse in time. But, she could’ve just as easily done this with overlapping time frames. As one story finishes, the audience would be brought back to the beginning to look at life from another set of eyes. This would’ve emphasized the variety in the characters and how they personally translate high school. When everything gets mashed together, the film can never truly delve into the learning process. When Coppola is delivering a message, the film reads as an after school special.
What’s very unfortunate is that some of the more fascinating characters don’t get enough screen time. A story following Emily is easily the most interesting arc. Zoe Levin plays a teen who longs for a relationship, and is under the influence that sex obtains that long-term connection. She exchanges oral sex for a conversation. The trade leaves her unaccompanied and robbed as the immature males get what they came for and take off.
Palo Alto is staggeringly uneven with strange transitions that don’t feel motivated in the slightest. Sometimes drab teenage life can be dealt with accordingly under matching direction. Gia’s aunt Sofia displayed this with her flick The Bling Ring. While that movie is far from perfect, it was at least clear with its intentions to project vapid ambitions. I look at Palo Alto and not only do I not see any signs of any ambitions, there isn’t even a warm spot of where ambitions once existed.