First-time writer-director Gia Coppola enters the film industry with a double-edged sword. Being the granddaughter of five-time Academy Award winner Francis Ford Coppola, and the niece of Sofia Coppola, she has a familial leg up in exploring her own cinematic ambitions. But seeing the Coppola name at the head of a film sets up some pretty big expectations, ones Gia isn't yet ready to fulfill. Perhaps it's unfair to compare. But as Gia chose reckless youth as the subject of her directorial debut Palo Alto, it's impossible not to be reminded of her aunt Sofia's dramas on the same theme. Fair or not, Palo Alto pales in comparison to the likes of The Virgin Suicides and The Bling Ring.
Based on the short stories of James Franco, Palo Alto offers a quartet of interwoven tales of teen angst. Emma Roberts stars as April, a naïve virgin who engages in a dangerous flirtation with her soccer coach (Franco). Crushing on April is Teddy (newcomer Jack Kilmer), a stoner who has aspirations to paint but a self-destructive streak that could derail his future. Teddy's best friend/bad influence is Fred (Nat Wolff), a loudmouth bad boy who relishes in talking shit and rattling cages. When Fred's not goofing off with Teddy, he's fooling around with Emily (Zoe Levin), a girl with a reputation for being easy.
Amid booze and drug-fueled parties and a snarl of after-school activities, these four threads tangle into each other, but never with a sense of drive. Its story starts out strong, introducing familiar archetypes in pivotal moments of their youth. There's a sense of verve and spark in these teens. But without a strong through line, Palo Alto becomes one note, one scene after another of sulking teens and snide banter. It turns to navel gazing, leading to an ambiguous and abrupt end.
Palo Alto functions more as a slice of teen life narrative than a coming-of-age story, as its characters never grow enough to fulfill the demands of the latter genre. To her credit, Coppola crafts a delicate and detailed portrait of reckless youth. Lingering shots of set dressing give important clues to the characters' inner lives. For instance, when Fred beds Emily, Coppola is careful to include shots of the childish bric-a-brac that studs her pink bedroom. This shows us that Emily may have the body and perhaps the sexual drive of a woman, but emotionally she's still a bit of a kid. This speaks to the uncomfortable limbo where each of the leads finds themselves.
The performances by the "teen" cast add to the film's sense of authenticity. (On the other hand, the adult cast--including Franco--offer performances that are so hokey and sometimes downright cartoonish that it's jarring.) Roberts deftly paints the insecurities and fluttering hopes of April through her fidgeting with cigarettes and fumbling flirtations with her skeezy soccer coach. Kilmer gives an understated and raw performance that plays well against Wolff's hyper young maniac, who bristles with anxiety and a rage he can't explain. For me, Levin's performance as Emily was the most compelling. Her peers repeatedly call her a slut, both girls and boys judging her for the acceptance and love she attempts to find in sexual favors. But even though Coppola's Palo Alto script gives Emily few lines to explain herself, Levin's soft looks and tender physicality paints a full picture of who this lonely girl is beneath her bad reputation.
These characters share that terrible adolescent earnestness to appear to the world unfazed and unimpressed. That perfect posturing of poser jadedness is what makes Palo Alto a grounded and authentic look at modern teendom. This is not a romantic movie about the feeling of immortality and limitless possibility of youth. Palo Alto focuses on the flip side of being a teen, where confusion, a feeling of powerlessness and fear of the future shake you to your core. The film gives off this mood in waves so intense that it's contagious. For hours after the film, I felt depressed and couldn't rationalize why. And then I realized, it was all Palo Alto, a movie so effective in projecting the anxieties of its heroes that I carried them home with me.
Coppola is showing great raw talent as a filmmaker, creating a mood this intense and affecting. She dares to create characters that are complex, and not necessarily likeable, yet relatable. However, she doesn't seem to say anything with them, and in this way Palo Alto feels incomplete. Coppola nails emotional authenticity, but lacks insight. So, in the end the plight and pain of these characters may linger, but the point of Palo Alto is lost.