Sometimes seeking out independent cinema feels like an exciting journey into the best work that cinema has to offer, but other times it almost kind of feels like you’re scouting the AAA minor leagues for a strong prospect. That’s certainly how I felt when I walked into the film Palo Alto, which focuses on what is probably my least favorite subject in indie cinema: bored aimless suburban teenagers. In fact, the coming of age genre itself has been something of a plague as of late, which is why I didn’t even bother to see such films as The Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Way Way Back, The Spectacular Now, and The Kings of Summer. Still, I was interested in seeing Palo Alto in part because it didn’t look as navel-gazingly autobiographical as some of the above films, but mainly because I wanted to check out a promising young director: Gia Coppola. Daughter of the late Gian-Carlo Coppola, niece of Sofia and Roman Coppola, and grand-daughter of the great Francis Ford Coppola, Gia is quite literally of a promising pedigree. Of course I’m no believer in genetic predestination or nepotism, but you ignore the future of the Coppola clan at your own peril.
Based on a short story collection written by James Franco (yes, that James Franco), Palo Alto looks at a group of teenagers who are adrift in the titular San Francisco suburb. The primary characters are probably April (Emma Roberts) and Teddy (Jack Kilmer). Teddy is, at his core, a fairly sensitive person with art skills but he also lacks a personal identity and often unthinkingly allows his obnoxious friend Fred (Nat Wolff) influence him to do stupid and self-destructive things. April is also an inwardly smart and athletic young person, but not an overly adventurous person and she hasn’t necessarily formed an identity within her school. This puts her in a somewhat vulnerable position when her soccer coach (James Franco) starts to make inappropriate advances towards her.
So, what we have here is a movie about peer pressure, inappropriate teacher-student relations, and generally about suburban malaise. If these are new issues to you, you haven’t been paying much attention. These were already clichés when they became mainstays on teen soap operas in the 90s and they were certainly clichés by the time they showed up in this movie. As such the challenge anyone accepts when trying to make a movie about this kind of stuff is to find some kind of original take on it that makes their film stand out in some way shape or form. Does Gia Coppola do this? Not exactly. She certainly handles the issues with more care and realism than, say, “Dawson’s Creek” but it’s hardly the first film to do this and it probably won’t be the last. Still it does deserve some credit for navigating these waters rather deftly. The depiction does seem to be pretty realistic and nuanced and the film does successfully avoid most of the dated “jocks vs. nerds” stereotypes that less carefully high school movies tend to fall prey to.
The film is also elevated somewhat by a number of strong performances by heretofore mostly unknown young actors. The film is especially a good showcase for Emma Roberts (niece of Julia Roberts), who’s apparently been doing the child-actor thing for years but who’s just breaking into films this year. She’s a little bit older than some of her co-stars, but you wouldn’t really know it from watching the film. I was also impressed by Nat Wolff, who has to play a really unsympathetic asshole of a character and mostly manages to pull it off in a believable way that doesn’t go too far over the top. I was a little less impressed with Jack Kilmer (son of Val Kilmer), who has something of a blank expression on his face for much of the film, but he has his moments and doesn’t detract too much from the film.
So, I guess that brings me back to the question that drew me into the movie in the first place: does Gia Coppola have the chops to carry on the family name? The answer to that is… probably. Her interests certainly seem to be much more in line with her aunt than with her grandfather, but she demonstrates a grasp of tone that in some ways seems a lot stronger to me than what I’ve seen out of Sofia. She manages to give the whole film a very appropriate “morning after the party” tone, and she rarely makes any overly jarring mistakes. She also probably deserves a decent amount of the credit for having gotten as many good performances out of young actors as she did. So, yeah, I do want to see what she does in the future even if this particular movie isn’t really for me. Hopefully with this under her belt she’ll find better uses for her talents than an adaptation of one of James Franco’s stupid vanity projects.
*** out of Four