Gia Coppola proves to have quite the eye if not quite the natural storytelling instinct of her cinematic kin, serving up a remarkably assured feature debut with “Palo Alto.” Drawn from James Franco’s short-story collection, which consists mostly of driving drunk, smoking weed and deflowering virgins, this group portrait of disaffected Northern California teens goes to impressive lengths to develop the characters and shape their experience into something meaningful without ever quite cracking how its various vignettes should function as a whole. Coppola curiosity and the participation of name actors (including Franco) should earn this provocative effort a wider audience than your typical wasted-youth pics.
Where the source material felt like a superficial attempt to capture the often-unthinking impulses of modern teens — the been-there-done-that literary equivalent of Larry Clark’s “Tulsa” photos — Coppola’s adaptation balances the tired sensationalism of kids behaving badly with a welcome dose of sympathy. The granddaughter of Francis Ford Coppola, Gia is hardly the first to observe the age group in question. (In fact, the film owes a heavy debt to auntie Sofia’s debut, “The Virgin Suicides,” a giant poster for which hangs in the Emma Roberts character’s bedroom.) But she brings a fresh humanity that too few of Clark’s and Gus Van Sant’s countless imitators bother to apply when waxing cynical about modern youth.
Perhaps it’s the lack of judgment that sets “Palo Alto” apart. A film like “Kids” serves as a shocking wake-up call to absentee parents, while “Elephant” and “Paranoid Park” exist to show how this lack of supervision has gone too far, leading to death (from the last year alone, add pics such as “What Richard Did” and “Les Apaches” to that list, all triggered by acts of teenage murder). Coppola ignores Franco’s story “Lockheed,” in which an insecure girl watches a boy who’d just been nice to her get beaten to death at a party. Instead, she focuses on five of the least sensational chapters in the book — “Jack-O’,” “Emily” and the three-part “April” — interweaving them in such a way that the characters overlap, without imposing something so conventional as a plot. (In doing so, she leaves the remaining “Palo Alto” stories for Franco to delegate to other directors, as he attempted with an unsuccessful crowdfunding plea in June.)
Instead of scandalizing viewers, the film attempts to capture the truth about what contempo teens experience, depicting the casual racism, misogyny and self-destructive experimentation that accompanies the rocky passage from childhood to a fully formed personal identity. There can be no question that these teens are rebelling, but in contrast with previous generations or those in lower classes, it’s not clear against what. Consider Roberts’ April: Her mother showers her with attention and praise, and her permissive father (Val Kilmer) smokes pot (all the dads in “Palo Alto” do, though at least he doesn’t also try to grope his kids’ friends, like Chris Messina’s character). April’s parents are so supportive of her independence that the break-away phase seems almost anticlimactic, and the mistakes — like falling for sexy soccer coach Mr. B (Franco, who doesn’t even bother to shave for the role) — feel almost banal, despite their illegality. (Roberts, 22, is eight years older than the character in the book.)
“Palo Alto” doesn’t preach, which can be a little disconcerting for audiences who’ve come to expect a tone of shrill indignation and outrage to accompany such films. Instead, Coppola cycles through a wide range of emotions, from humor to horror, as these not-quite-kids, not-quite-adults pick fights, deface public property and seek easy gratification from the school “slut” (a word that’s never heard in the film, despite its frequent use in the book). If April is the compromised good girl, then Emily (Zoe Levin) is the “blowjob whore” who doesn’t seem to realize her own value. She’s an easy target for wild-and-crazy Fred (Nat Wolff, one half of Nick’s “The Naked Brothers Band,” all grown up) and girlish-looking Teddy (Val’s son Jack Kilmer, making his impressive acting debut).
Despite its relatively short running time, “Palo Alto” feels overlong in stretches simply because its characters aren’t motivated by specific goals; nor are there clear “reasons” for their actions. The tone throughout resembles that of the pool party in “The Last Picture Show,” where the sexual thrill of the moment is tempered by the sense that something is being lost. No one here seems to be thinking about the future, as Coppola makes abundantly clear by including an awkward session with a college guidance counselor. These characters live in the moment, pleasure-seeking with little concern for the impact their actions have on others, though audiences gets a sense of consequences via the pic’s shifting perspective (as in “The Rules of Attraction,” but without all the flashy interference).
Coppola easily slips between the vantage of male and female characters, embracing the same elliptical style seen in “The Bling Ring” as well as Sofia’s tendency to linger on peripheral details — childhood toys, a dying plant, a heart carved into the bark of a tree or girlish panties — for ironic effect. The wall-to-wall music, mostly mellow electronic score with some piano, and striking Steadicam lensing by gifted female d.p. Autumn Durald buffers everything from harsh realism, allowing a slightly dreamlike quality into the proceedings. The incidents depicted could just as easily have taken place 20 years ago as today, if not for the occasional iPhone cameo. While “Palo Alto” doesn’t seem to be saying anything new exactly, it boasts a clear and confident voice of its own, and it will be exciting to see where the young Coppola goes from here.