“Palo Alto” – Nepotism and Nihilism Have Never Looked So Lovely

Palo Alto

Palo Alto (Gia Coppola, 2013)

There’s no way around the following conclusion: Palo Alto is Nepotism Central. Written and directed by Gia Coppola – granddaughter of Francis – the film stars Emma Roberts (daughter of Eric and niece of Julia) and Jack Kilmer (son of Val). Emma Roberts, at least, has been making films since Blow, in 2001 (in which she played Johnny Depp‘s daughter). But for Gia and Jack, this is Numero Uno, and no one can convince me that they haven’t benefited from trading on their respective family names. That said, Palo Alto is a lovely and lyrical paean to misspent childhoods and coming-of-age tales, and well worth seeing. If you’re going to reap the rewards of good connections, it’s better if you’re also blessed with talent, which everyone here has in spades.

Based on short stories written by actor/writer/director/etc. James FrancoPalo Alto the movie takes a collection of disparate tales and weaves them into a coherent and tight narrative about wayward youth, struggling to define themselves in a world with nary an adult in site. They’re at a crossroads: no longer children, but still tied to childish things (even as they drink, smoke and drug like hardened addicts). It’s a bleak vision, laid over what would – in another film – be a fairly conventional romantic dramedy where April (Roberts, terrific) and Teddy (Kilmer, also strong) meet cute and then spend the rest of the film overcoming the obstacles that keep them apart. It’s this through-line – clichéd though it may be – that gives the film hope, however, since we’re rooting for April and Teddy to come to their senses and get their lives in order, even as they engage in the kind of risky behavior that was absent from the John Hughes films of my own youth (including sex with a teacher and drunk driving). And all of it is seen through the gorgeous lens of cinematographer Autumn Durald (who worked on fashion videos with Gia Coppola prior to Palo Alto, but is otherwise not part of the nepotism circle), who bathes many of the sequences in a golden hue, as if to say that no matter what these kids do, they’re still kids.

Nevertheless, these are kids from a particular upper-middle-class milieu, with rich (though, again, absent) parents who provide them with the funds they need to buy alcohol and pot, and the freedom to wander the streets in their personal cars. James Franco – who grew up in the real Palo Alto – has loosely based these stories on his own experiences, but has allowed Coppola complete artistic carte blanche to adapt them as she sees fit (as we learn in the movie’s press kit). In some ways, who better to make such a movie than children of privilege? Palo Alto is rich in what feels like authentic detail, down to the girlish production design of the main female characters’ rooms (right before one of them has sex, we see her pink sheets and dolls). It may be a disturbing and nihilistic portrait of teenagers gone wrong, but it rings true.

James Franco, himself, appears in the film as a Mr. B, a sleazy girls’ soccer coach who may be hitting on more than one of his players at once, using his young son – always in need of a babysitter – as bait. He’s the only adult with whom we spend any significant time. As lost and nasty as the teens can be, they at least have some honor compared to Mr. B. It’s a good choice of role for Franco, as he uses his natural charm to portray the worst person in the film. Also good are Nat Wolff and Zoe Levin as Teddy’s volatile best friend and a girl (she of the pink room) who needs validation so badly that she’ll have sex with anyone, respectively.

We’ve seen some very fine – if dark – pictures of troubled youth in the last few years, including The Perks of Being a WallflowerThe Spectacular Now and The Bling Ring (directed by Gia’s aunt Sofia). Palo Alto fits right in that mold, and announces the arrival of a number of excellent new artists. I recommend it highly.

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