Written and directed by Gia Coppola
The disaffection of youth is a familiar theme in modern American cinema, and one of its most recognizable creators is Sofia Coppola. It’s hard not to think of her films, from The Virgin Suicides to The Bling Ring, while watching Palo Alto, the debut feature from her niece, Gia Coppola. In fact, it would be extraordinarily easy to claim nepotism throughout the production, from Coppola to two of her leads, Emma Roberts and Jack Kilmer. But thankfully, in spite of these various ties to older generations of Hollywood luminaries, Palo Alto is a well-crafted ensemble piece about how teenage disconnection rarely shifts that dramatically from era to era.
Roberts plays April, who’s best known among her social group as being the good girl. (Here, at least, “good girl” is a term with a flexible definition, as even before her various romances begin, we see April going to parties, drinking, smoking, etc.) On one hand, she finds herself more and more attracted to a stoner friend of hers, Teddy (Kilmer). But she can’t help succumbing to her soccer coach (James Franco), who may well be hooking up with a few of her friends as well. Teddy, meanwhile, wants to tell April how he feels but is constantly distracted by the other girls in his class as well as his increasingly destructive best friend Fred (Nat Wolff), whose louche partying quickly turns nasty when others don’t equal his childlike madness.
Palo Alto is at its best and its most disturbing when portraying the relationship between Teddy and Fred, who have a longstanding relationship with a crumbling foundation. By the time the title appears on screen, the conflict of whether or not Teddy will walk away from this guy—who may have been a friend in the past but acts more like a cruel instigator now—is far more compelling than that of April’s push and pull with her soccer coach. It’s also a bit difficult to avoid the skeeviness of this subplot, specifically because Palo Alto is based on a series of stories written by Franco.
Coppola, who wrote the film, is able to balance the creepiness (textual and otherwise) of April and her coach with the other miniature stories we get about these characters as well as the other teenagers on the periphery. For example, there’s Emily (Zoe Levin), who, for a time, hooks up with Fred less because of a genuine attraction and more because she presumes that sex will inspire a connection, not the other way around. But even with April and Teddy, we get brief glimpses into their lives outside of school and partying, specifically to clarify why they’re able to float around their neighborhood with little to no adult supervision. (This leads to a delightfully memorable if brief cameo from Val Kilmer as April’s stepfather. His loopy minute or so onscreen is a breath of fresh air.)
As another portrait of the malaise of being an American teenager, Palo Alto works well enough; it works even better as proof that Gia Coppola, like the rest of her exceedingly talented family, deserves to work behind the camera as opposed to simply getting there thanks to the right connections. As much as these young characters may have to force themselves to care, to feel something aside from whatever comes out of them when they get drunk or high, Coppola shows a welcome amount of empathy for April and Teddy, and even Fred (though he comes much closer to being an outright villain by the end of the picture). At the very least, as proof of talent and hope for future potential, Palo Alto is a fine entry into feature filmmaking for Gia Coppola.
— Josh Spiegel