Written and Directed by Gia Coppola
The city of Palo Alto is the hub for Silicon Valley, the infamous location where geeks can become millionaires and the home of Stanford University. In the movie, Palo Alto, neither of these distinctions is mentioned or even significant to the movie. The location of the movie could have been anywhere and the story at hand could have taken place in any city around the world.
Palo Alto marks Gia Coppola’s directorial debut, the granddaughter of France Ford Coppola and niece of Sofia Coppola, I assume has allowed her to draw inspiration from everything she has learned from her family. The screenplay was also written by Coppola and was adapted from James Franco’s collection of short stories in his book by the same name. The stories come from his personal experiences and those he gathered from high school students.
The plot of the film revolves around the two main characters in the story, April (Emma Roberts) and Teddy (Jack Kilmer), teenagers who are trying to find themselves and figure out their way in the world. Along the way, they make mistakes, fall in and out of love and realize that becoming an adult is a road paved with heartache and lots of bumps in the way. Their friendships through the characters of Fred (Nat Wolff) and Emily (Zoe Levin) also give us different viewpoints into the lives of this group of teenagers.
Both April and Teddy have families that don’t seem to be playing a significant part in their lives, it’s almost as if the adults are living in one part of the house and the teenagers in another. The parents show their love for their kids, but it seems very blasé and ineffectual. Fred’s dad (Chris Messina) seems to have a distant, odd relationship with his son and April’s step-father (Val Kilmer) is more preoccupied with correcting her term papers and smoking pot, then actually spending quality time with her.
Other adults like April’s teacher and soccer coach, Mr. B (James Franco), are people who don’t really seem to value these kids or care to be good role models. Instead he struck me as a bit peculiar and even creepy to say the least. I liked his storyline with April, I would have loved to have seen more of this play out in the film.
The film feels like we are watching someone tell a story about their life, it sort of has that feeling like when someone says “remember that time when” or “how did I come out of that alive?” The sentiments and emotions that teenagers face are felt throughout the film and expressed through its main characters. There are many suspenseful moments in the film where we think, “oh, crap” is that kid going to be okay, but then nothing ever happens. The suspense is built and the loose ends never get finalized or feel important in any way.
I have mixed emotions on this film, there were parts of that I enjoyed and some that I did not. The cinematography by up and comer, Autumn Durald, was beautiful, every still felt like a well composed photograph. Much of it the way it was shot reminded me of Larry Clark’s film Kids, especially the scene where Fred and Emily are in her child-like bedroom, getting undressed and hooking up. Throughout the film, it feels as if we are voyeurs watching these characters come into their teenage years, drinking too much, experimenting with sex and all the while when the doors are shut, we are left there to watch it all unfold. It doesn’t feel like the usual teenage drama, where things are assumed, instead we watch it happen and invade their space.
I liked how everything felt like very real, the houses they lived in looked like anywhere in America, the rooms of the teens especially April’s reminded me of my own room growing up. The way that they behaved and felt was sensed and I am sure anyone that watches this can agree with that sentiment. This movie at some point will remind people of some part of their teenage years. The angst, the fear, the unknowing yourself and your own feelings that is all relatable and translated well through the characters and the dream-like quality of the film.
What I didn’t like about this movie was the narrative and character development. Wait let me take that back, what narrative? Where is it, if someone knows where it’s at, please do tell. The story is disjointed and nothing ever really feels like it has importance or matters. If we think it will matter later, as in perhaps something is being foreshadowed, none of that ever comes to light. By the end I thought, why do I even care about these kids anymore, why did I waste my time watching this? I would have loved to have seen more of the April and Teddy narrative unfold or the story of April and Mr. B, instead we are just given nuggets of info and it’s up to the viewer to decide what happened or even why it happened at all.
Kilmer, who looks like half River Phoenix and Kurt Cobain, and is also the son of Val, Mr. Iceman himself, does a great job in his first on-screen role. He undeniably has a cool vibe and delivers feeling and emotion that is on point. I would love to see him in a more challenging role, I think he could nail it and capture the essence of his inner bad-boy.
Roberts was great as well, we have become used to seeing her as the vapid, pretty girl in movies and TV shows, so to see her in this light, with a bit of makeup and revealing herself so emotionally was great. She took the words vulnerable and young and elevated them to another level, plus this film probably gave her some cool points in the indie world.
My favorite had to be Wolff, who delivered probably the best performance of the whole movie. His emotion was raw and challenging and I wanted to see more of his story over everyone else. He is quickly turning into one of my fave young actors.
Overall, this movie had the cool factor down, hip kids, a great soundtrack, unique photographic shots, but what it lacked was substance. All of the coolness overtook the main factor, the story itself, which in my mind was due to Franco’s wannabe-novel. What emanated from there, did not translate well onto screen or at least it was not told the way I would have liked. I love movies that are different and avant-garde, but when a director does one of those types of films, think Lars Von Trier, they have to be done and written to absolute meticulous perfection to work.
I didn’t hate or love this movie, I would wait to see this on DVD. I think it would be a fun movie to watch when you have nothing to do or you feel like relaxing and not thinking about anything at all.