“Palo Alto” is presumably the story of the suburb we all grew up in with the cute coach we never had. Based on the short stories by James Franco, 27-year-old Gia Coppola has written and directed her first feature film. For those who are unaware of her famous family history, Gia is the niece of Sofia Coppola (“The Virgin Suicides” and “The Bling Ring”), and the granddaughter of the illustrious Francis Ford Coppola (“The Godfather”). Coming from such a filmmaking powerhouse, it’s difficult not to see those influences in Gia’s style.
“Palo Alto” chronicles the lives of high school teenagers making reckless decisions, unaware of consequence. Emma Roberts plays April, the good girl who gets tangled up with her charming but ultimately creepy soccer coach, played by Franco. Teddy, played by Jack Kilmer (Val Kilmer’s son), is the sweet guy who unfortunately follows the lead of his bad-influence friend, Fred (Nat Wolff).
Kilmer gives a steady and convincing performance for his acting debut, and Wolff, who will appear in “The Fault in Our Stars” this summer, wears his erratic and insensitive character well. Teddy and April secretly like each other but let apprehension and miscommunication get in the way of sharing how they feel. The film mirrors the same sentiments from Sofia’s films, which attempt to capture the sense of feeling lost and out of control.
The lethargic tone was carried well by the cinematography with montages of drinking and smoking, and slow-motion “looking out the window” car rides. The music was also on point, with dreamy melancholy sounds, which was refreshing as most high school movies typically stream obnoxious commercial hits, like “Twilight’s” soundtrack. “Palo Alto” tackles the cliché ideas of senseless partying, removed parents and confused and timid love lives, but does it succeed in being unique and insightful?
Throughout the film, I was skeptical of the characters’ ridiculous behavior — cutting down trees, traipsing through cemeteries, crashing cars. I wondered, “Is that what high schoolers really do?” I was worried that Gia was perhaps over-selling the point. But by the end of the film, I accepted it for what it was and was forced to reflect on my own high school experiences.
“Palo Alto” forces you to think about the times you did things because your friends were doing them, and the people you liked but never had the courage to tell how you felt. While it succeeds in displaying the awkward mess of teenage angst, “Palo Alto” left me feeling incomplete. It lacked something to keep a lasting impact. While two of the characters break down in tears, these moments translate more as mood swings than profound moments of realization or deep growth, which made me believe that the characters didn’t develop as much as they could have. Besides the immediate reminiscing it sparked, “Palo Alto” was a compilation love child of Sofia’s films, and required its own unique voice. Yet overall, Gia gives a respectable debut effort and shows promise for future projects — it’s certainly in her blood.
Only Recommended If: You’re willing to give the youngest Coppola a shot. “Palo Alto” has several aspects to appreciate.