Palo Alto breaks no new ground in its group portrayal of distracted Bay Area teens drifting through druggy parties and sexual fumblings. But first-time director Gia Coppola (granddaughter of Francis Ford) tills this well-trod soil with a delicate, assured touch. (The film was just released on DVD and video on-demand.)
She has an intuitive eye and a patient attention to composition, allowing moments to linger long enough to resonate, but short enough to avoid pretension. She also is granted a fine performance from Emma Roberts (niece of Julia, daughter of Eric) whose pensive intelligence keeps the movie from descending into a standard-issue teen drama.
As usual with this tried-and-true genre, nothing much happens in the lives of these privileged adolescents. Their encounters with sex, drugs and delinquency seem more like diversions than commitments, as if the teenagers are aware their experimentations will never lead to a lifestyle choice. This is especially true for the virginal April (Roberts) and tousle-headed Teddy (Jack Kilmer, Val’s son), two casual friends who spend little screen time together, but who share a mutual respect.
April babysits for her soccer coach (James Franco with his trademark insouciance), a divorced dad tuned to the gamine charms of his players. He’s a predator who seems to have little fear his dalliances will mean unemployment or prison. It is refreshing, and obviously troubling, for a film to treat the idea of teacher-student sex not as a crime but as a not-so-out-of-the-ordinary option for these young women. Coppola isn’t saying she approves, but she isn't mining this material for criminal melodrama either. She uses April’s brief, unsatisfying relationship to mark her as a woman who learns quickly from her mistakes.
Teddy is slower learner, or at least he’s pretending to be. A bright kid and a talented artist, he has a way of sabotaging his own progress. Kilmer’s portrayal is appropriately low-key, but the underwritten part gives him little agency. He commits acts of drunken vandalism in a void, dispiritedly accepts the advances of a promiscuous classmate and, when given a chance to clean up his act, listlessly lets the opportunity slip through his fingers.
His good friend, Fred (Nat Wolff), is not what you’d call a helpful influence. In fact, Fred is the kind of obnoxious, unfunny jerk who ruins good times and potentially good movies. If the kid was merely annoying you could chalk his rude, irritating presence up to a troubled adolescent’s cry for attention, but this kid is dangerously unstable. Why the discerning and sensitive April and Teddy would get anywhere near Fred is Coppola’s only serious misstep in the film.
Her sharp, thumbnail sketches of the adults in the film are more on the mark. She allows the parents to display just enough concern to show they are not completely disconnected from their offspring, but also deftly skewers their self-involvement. Val Kilmer, Chris Messina, Janet Jones, Colleen Camp and even Don Novello (Father Guido Sarducci from Saturday Night Live) turn up in funny, sardonic cameos, suggesting Coppola was a keen-eyed presence growing up in the homes of moviemaking royalty.
As a first film, Palo Alto is a promising calling card. I’d love to see what she does with a stable of narcissistic grown-ups.