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The best feature film directed by someone named Coppola in a number of years, Palo Alto is a dreamy looking, unsensationalized portrait of badly behaved residents of a notably affluent California town. Directed and written by Gia Coppola, who here extends the family dedication to filmmaking into a third generation, this adaptation of James Franco’s short-story collection Palo Alto Stories deals with such familiar hot-button teen issues as suicide, drugs, drinking and random sex, but from the coolly observational perspective of a curious artist rather than from a hormonal or sociological point of view; creatively, it’s almost the polar opposite of something deliberately confronting and self-consciously provocative like Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers. Commercial prospects are modest but it’s a very creditable first feature.
Gia Coppola is Francis’ 26-year-old granddaughter and her mother was two months pregnant when her father, Gian-Carlo Coppola, was killed in a tragic boating accident. She also graduated from Bard College with a fine arts degree in photography, and the drifting, moody visual approach is what most sets the film apart from the countless other features, indie and otherwise, that have depicted aimless, disaffected and confused teenagers. The soft, ever-shifting visuals lend an almost anesthetized feel to the proceedings that serves as a visual correlative to the frequently drunk and stoned state of the characters, who smoke very strong weed almost as casually and frequently as Mad Men smoke cigarettes.
Out of a group of high school students who regularly congregate to get totally wasted at an adult-free house, three soon come into focus as prime subjects of interest. Tall, dark-haired Fred (Nat Wolff) and slighter, blondish Teddy (Jack Kilmer) are best buds with no apparent boundaries and dedicated to abusing every substance within reach. As if auditioning for a remake of David Cronenberg’s Crash, Fred is first seen deliberately ramming his car into a wall, and his deepest instinct seems to be maintaining his status as the most antisocial a-hole in town.
Going along with it all out of peer pressure if nothing else, Teddy drinks ’til he drops, but not before smashing his car into that of an older woman (Colleen Camp), which lands him a community service gig at the local library.
The boys’ sometimes companion is April (Emma Roberts), who by local standards is a good girl by virtue of the fact that she isn’t always hammered and orally servicing every guy in school, unlike shameless slut Emily (Zoe Levin). In another place and time, the pretty April would likely be the belle of the ball but here, with little parental guidance and pervasive local debauchery, she’s lost and without focus.
Further degrading influence comes in the good-looking form of her twice-her-age soccer coach Mr. B (Franco), who’s outwardly upbeat and friendly but takes advantage of her babysitting stints at his house to confess his love and put the moves on her. These scenes are icky, as they say, and all too believable.
What would seem to unify all the characters here is an almost total inability to identify and articulate their feelings and then act upon them in any coherent or meaningful manner. The most immediate reasons for this would seem to be lack of any role models or moral strictures combined with the embalming effect of drugs and booze, but this is merely implicit; that Coppola isn’t remotely interested in the sociopolitical aspects of the situation is reflected first and foremost in the lack of physical reference points — only the title indicates where the story is set (it’s Franco’s hometown), and the anonymous streets and parks and backyards that serve as the main settings could be anywhere and not in one of the most intellectually and economically privileged communities in the world.
Whatever is missing from the lives of these aimless adolescents will be up to audiences to decide, but Coppola’s own experience and biases unsurprisingly emerge with the tacit suggestion that finding one’s own means of artistic expression can provide the best escape from emotional numbness and incoherence.
Along with the allure of Autumn Cheyenne Durald’s cinematography, the soundtrack is another major asset here, with songs and musical samplings having been layered and moved in and out in effective ways. Veteran sound designer Richard Beggs no doubt played a significant role in fashioning the complex soundtrack.
The three leads are good in a naturalistic vein. Wolff’s compulsive troublemaker Fred is a scary creation, a guy whose behavior is as unpredictable and random as an out-of-control garden hose. Kilmer, whose father, Val, has a bizarre cameo, suggests real sensitivity as a kid with artistic potential, while Roberts glimmers with palpable but unprocessed emotional impulses.
Venue: Telluride Film Festival
Production: Rabbit Bandini
Cast: James Franco, Emma Roberts, Nat Wolff, Jack Kilmer, Zoe Levin, Claudia Levy, Olivia Crocicchia, Val Kilmer, Colleen Camp
Director: Gia Coppola
Screenwriter: Gia Coppola, based on the book Palo Alto Stories by James Franco
Producers: Sebastian Pardo, Adriana Rotaru, Miles Levy, Vince Jolivette
Director of photography: Autumn Cheyenne Durald
Production designer: Sara Jamieson
Costume designer: Courtney Hoffman
Editor: Leo Scott
Music: Devonte Hynes, Robert Coppola Schwartzman
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