Director: Gia Coppola
UK Release: 17 October 2014
The word Coppola jumps out at you when you first see the poster for this film. This one is Gia, the latest member of the dynasty to dip her toe into the family film directing business. For the record she is granddaughter to Francis, niece to Sofia, and a cousin to both of Nicolas Cage and Jason Schwartzman. For her debut she has chosen to adapt several linked stories from actor James Franco’s 2010 short story collection Palo Alto.
It’s task she takes to well. In her hands Palo Alto is a thoughtful, low key, coming-of-age teen drama. It revolves around the school and post school party lives of a group of small town teens. Class virgin, April (Emma Roberts) is part of the school soccer team. She babysits for her coach Mr B (James Franco), who she and several of the other girls are attracted too. He, however, is not her only potential love interest, she also has a crush on fellow class mate and wannabe artist Teddy (Jack Kilmer). Teddy meanwhile wants to reciprocate this attraction but often finds himself caught up getting stoned and being best friend to Fred (Nat Wolff), whose general level of boredom with small town life is edging him ever closer to the edge of disaster. The two boys meanwhile have their eyes on the promiscuous Emily (Zoe Levin) whose insecurity and need to be loved results in her sleeping with just about any boy who asks.
Coppola said she took some inspiration for how her film would look and feel from films such as The Outsiders and The Last Picture Show, in particular in the manner in which they treated their teen characters and their lives. It shows. She brilliantly captures that small town boredom, and the associated mid-teen monotony of school – home – school and with it that need to break out of that ‘safety’ by any means possible: be it partying, drink and drugs, sex, vandalism. Anything to numb the pain of the boredom. As a result, not a whole lot actually happens plot-wise during the film, as we ride along on car rides with Teddy and Fred, and go to school parties. But that’s fine, because when we’re doing this our focus is totally on the kids – and this is where the film is at its best. Coppola has drawn great performances out of her young cast. Roberts plays vulnerable and ‘normal’ beautifully; Wolff handles the most showy of the central roles well, channeling hinted at inner demons and thrill seeking detachment with aplomb; in his first film role Kilmer shows that the Kilmer/Whalley acting genes have been passed on; and Levin, comes close to stealing the whole film with her well judged performance of insecure Emily.
I really liked the onscreen chemistry between the leads. There is a believable awkwardness between Roberts and Kilmer (the pair were purposely kept apart as much as possible pre filming). Likewise, there is a real camaraderie between Kilmer and Wolff (last seen in The Fault in Our Stars).
Less good are the parts of the film dealing with April and Mr B’s illicit relationship. These are less engaging, more clichéd and totally predictable, although Franco is, at least, believably creepy. Also, if you were being overly critical you could say the film could lose 10-15 minutes of its 100 minute running time.
But overall, I liked this take on the coming-of-age film, and look forward to seeing more from its young stars and its writer/director in the future.