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TELLURIDE, Colo. – On Monday, the last day of the 40th Telluride Film Festival, I caught up with Palo Alto, the feature directorial debut of Gia Coppola — yes, Carmine’s great-granddaughter, Francis Ford’s granddaughter and Sofia’s niece. Like aunt Sofia’s The Bling Ring, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May, this is a film about today’s youth that has a very talented cast, impressive cinematography, a cool soundtrack, very dark humor — and a story that will leave you sad and fearful for the future.
The film is still seeking U.S. distribution, and would face an uphill climb for awards attention outside of Film Independent’s Spirit Awards if it secures a release this year. That’s not because it isn’t well-made or entertaining — it is both — but because the field is already jam-packed and, well, I’m not sure that Academy members are going to be able to stomach this story.
PHOTOS: Telluride Film Festival: The Films
Palo Alto — which was inspired by the short stories of James Franco, who also plays a key supporting role in the film — revolves around a bunch of high school students from Palo Alto, a middle-class suburb in Northern California. Like American high schoolers for the better part of the century, they are bored and spend much of their time cruising around and looking for alcohol, drugs and sex. That’s not so different from, say, 1973’s American Graffiti.
But many of these 21st century kids — or, I suppose, young adults — are frighteningly vapid, scared and devoid of morals or ambition, which causes them to act out in the most self-destructive of ways: via fake friendships; promiscuous sexual behavior; prolific alcohol and drug abuse; and even inappropriate student-teacher relationships. Moreover, they are incapable of communicating their feelings of inner-turmoil to others — perhaps because they have spent so much of their lives in front of screens that they never really learned to talk. Several of them have less-than-wonderful parents who act like kids themselves, but that is no excuse. Their goal is not to be outstanding individuals or members of the community, but rather just to fit in with the cool crowd. And when they don’t, chaos ensues.
The film zeroes in on two of these youngsters: a girl (Emma Roberts) and a guy (Jack Kilmer, the son of Val Kilmer, who also has a cameo in the film). These characters show glimpses of having the potential to rise above the rest — and interest in one another — but the film captures how being surrounded by losers makes both of those things so much harder than they should be. Their performances are first rate and, like Coppola’s screenplay, might capture the attention of Spirit voters if and when the film finally goes out into the world.
Follow Scott on Twitter @ScottFeinberg for additional news and analysis.
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