Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Gia Coppola
Stars: Emma Roberts, Jack Kilmer, Nat Wolff, James Franco, Zoe Levin, Val Kilmer, Talia Shire, Olivia Crocicchia, Colleen Camp, Claudia Levy, Don Novello, Chris Messina.
The Coppolas are obviously an extremely talented family, with three generations of Oscar winners, and a younger generation of emerging filmmakers leaving their mark behind the camera. The latest exciting young filmmaker to make her directorial debut is Gia Coppola, the grand daughter of Oscar winning filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola.
Palo Alto is based on the book of short stories written by actor James Franco, and unfolds in a series of vignettes that explore the troubled lives of three teenagers who live in the upmarket Californian suburb. But money doesn’t buy happiness. The teens here are into sexual experimentation, drugs, alcohol and self destructive behaviour merely to escape the ennui that has overtaken their lives, and they often act on impulse without any regard to the consequences.
Teddy (played by Val Kilmer’s son Jack, making his film debut) is a naive, fairly decent kid, but he is often led into trouble by his best friend the rebellious, hard partying and self-destructive Fred (Nat Wolff, to be seen shortly in the weepie The Fault In Our Stars, etc). Fred’s irresponsible behaviour is even responsible for Teddy being fired from his court ordered community service work in the local childrens’ library. Teddy is attracted to the virginal April (Emma Roberts), but she is becoming aware of her blossoming sexuality and is drawn into a dangerous flirtation with her handsome but predatory teacher and soccer coach Mr B (Franco himself). And the troubled Emily (Zoe Levin) equates empty sex with friendship and drifts from one meaningless encounter to the next. Palo Alto offers a disturbing exploration of the crumbling friendship between Teddy and Fred, who grows increasingly cruel and self destructive.
The bored characters here share some similarities with those that populated her aunt Sophia Coppola’s drama The Bling Ring. This is an insightful and thoughtful drama, and Coppola has an observational style. She draws upon her background as a photographer to frame the details of these empty damaged lives, and gives give this melancholy, sad and bleak look at troubled adolescence an almost documentary-like realism and gritty atmosphere of authenticity. She demonstrates an empathy for Teddy and April, and she makes us care about these characters as they stumble through some bad choices. Coppola gets some good performances from her youthful cast. Roberts is largely cast against type here and ditches her usual wholesome persona for a more sexy and edgy performance.
While the teens here are depicted as deeply troubled, experimenting with sex and drugs and alcohol and dangerous behaviour, the adults are also depicted as flawed. Franco is somewhat creepy, while Chris Messina is good in a small role as Freddy’s father wrestling with his own demons and closeted sexuality in an uncomfortable scene with Teddy.
Palo Alto has been shot in moody style by cinematographer Autumn Cheyenne Durald (who has shot lots of short films), who uses lots of natural lighting to establish a bleak, downbeat atmosphere that suits the material.
Films looking at the disaffection of adolescents are almost a staple of American independent cinema, and this film dissecting the empty lives of troubled, bored teenagers trying to find their place in life ranks up there with the likes of Rebel Without A Cause and Fast Times At Ridgemont High and the films of John Hughes.
Palo Alto screens at the Sydney Film Festival, and also screens at ACMI throughout June.