By Don Simpson | May 16, 2014
Director: Gia Coppola
Writers: Gia Coppola, James Franco (Palo Alto Stories)
Starring: Emma Roberts, Jack Kilmer, James Franco, Nat Wolff, Zoe Levin, Val Kilmer, Olivia Crocicchia, Claudia Levy, Jacqui Getty, Andrew Lutheran, Bo Mitchell, Bailey Coppola
April (Emma Roberts) and Teddy (Jack Kilmer) are two lost souls swimming in a cinematic fishbowl populated by over-priveledged teens whose lives revolve around alcohol, drugs and sex. Sharing a certain kinship in their sensitive and innocent naïveté, these two high schoolers also seem too emotionally mature to relate with their classmates; having to act like teenagers only seems to get them into trouble. (Perhaps Roberts was purposefully cast to portray a teenager in order to showcase April’s maturity and further disassociate her from this cinematic universe?) April and Teddy are destined for each other, but they both find themselves stuck in the dreaded quicksand of high school. They must make some mistakes (they do not know why they do these things, but there is always a reason) before they can gain enough traction to reach the next stage of life, maybe then they will have an opportunity to be together.
April becomes distracted by the flirtations of her soccer coach (James Franco) in the hopes that an older man might save her from the humdrum depression of high school. Unfortunately, April discovers that her coach is just another horny teenager trapped in a man’s body. (In Palo Alto, the adults are just as immature as the teenagers.) All the while, Teddy must deal with the aftermath of a DUI charge. As part of his community service he is tasked with a job at a children’s library, thus catapulting him back to simpler times when one could just sit on the carpet and daydream.
Adapted from a collection of short stories by James Franco, Gia Coppola’s Palo Alto is bathed in the iconic hues of the Californian sunlight (courtesy of Autumn Durald’s gorgeous cinematography), suggesting an idealized perspective of high school years, when rich kids have nothing better to do than party and experiment with sex. Of course April and Teddy expect a lot more out of life, so they do not fit into this dream world, and there lies the narrative conflict within Palo Alto.
What Coppola does best is capture the pervasive feeling of listlessness, but unfortunately it is that very same listlessness that zaps any semblance of narrative drive from Palo Alto. Just as the characters struggle to connect with each other, Palo Alto is unable to form any sort of connection with the audience. The narrative quickly becomes stuck in the very same quagmire as the protagonists, trapping itself in a perpetual state of brooding boredom. Hesitant to delve into the existential struggle and/or sexual awakening of its protagonists, Palo Alto is merely a superficial study of teenagers that fails to compare to films like It Felt Like Love, I Believe in Unicorns, The Myth of the American Sleepover, Elephant, Thirteen, or even The Virgin Suicides (a film that Palo Alto owes tremendous debt and is honored with at least one easter egg).