Palo Alto

***1/2

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

"If there's a wish for more in Palo Alto, it's largely because what is here works so well."

Gia Coppola - granddaughter of Frances Ford, niece of Sophie for those keeping their family tree up to date - becomes the latest member of her clan to enter the realm of teenage angst with her directorial debut Palo Alto, based on the short stories by James Franco, who also takes on the key adult role in the film.

This is adolescence at its most fraught, where everyday life is a confusing jungle, complete with predators and prey, a landscape firmly set up at the beginning of the film as two buddies discuss the merits of becoming king. Good girl April (Emma Roberts, daughter of Eric), with her peachy complexion, dainty way of sipping alcohol and studious attitude, is certainly no predator. That doesn't mean she realises she's ripe to be the alternative - but we can see the way her adult football coach (Franco) looks at her and, let's face it, adulthood is seductive to those who don't have it. As so often in films, however, the threat of this would hit much harder if they actually cast a 'girl' in the role rather than 20something Roberts.

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Coppola focuses on teenagers' unpredictability, particularly through the pairing of the other two main characters in the film, unlikely buddies Teddy (Jack Kilmer, son of Val, who also pops up in a cameo) and Fred (Nat Wolff, also in new release The Fault In Our Stars). Fred is always on the verge of violence, whether it's kicking his car door, threatening a friend or hitting bullet casings with a hammer for no apparent reason and in every scene he and Teddy share the atmosphere is charged with a dangerous cocktail of bravado, pot and testosterone. Teddy is the most ambivalent character here - with a long-standing crush on April, he hovers between her more conformist viewpoint and the release offered by Fred's self-destructive streak.

The personality contradictions run wider, with the teenagers caught between trying to puff themselves up with 'fuck you' bravado and attempting to sink into the background - epitomised by April's decision to sit almost inside a locker at one point. The counterpoint is everywhere, from the drunk girls who brag and bully one another over shots, while one of their number, Emily (Zoe Levin), is obligingly sinking to her knees for a blowjob, only to hear rejection in the click of a door.

Coppola takes on a lot and balancing the characters proves difficult. While the central trio's stories work well, we occasionally drift out of one or other of their orbits for just a little too long. Subsidiary characters such as Emily also feel slightly underwritten compared to the others, meaning that the suspicion lingers that the source material might have been done more justice as a mini-series.

But if there's a wish for more in Palo Alto, it's largely because what is here works so well. These teenagers feel real, their parties authentic and their uncertainty familiar to anyone who was once 17. Touches of childhood are everywhere, in high school photos tracking the years or, perhaps most shockingly, in knickers which state the day of the week on their crotch. And Coppola's camera is never voyeuristic, roaming over dolls and other mementoes of growing up as a pair of teens have sex or focusing in on April's blank face during another moment of intimacy, inviting us to forget about what's happening more generally and think about her.

A Where The Wild Things Are dream sequence also re-enforces the idea of children as animals but it is the adults for whom the most damning judgement is reserved. These parental figures are not merely absent, they are either stoned to the point of oblivion or worse, or simply too intoxicated by everything else going on in their lives to realise that their children need guidance. In this realm, Coppola keeps faith with the kids and asks, who are we to judge?

Reviewed on: 17 Jun 2014
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Snapshot of teenage angst.
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Director: Gia Coppola

Writer: Gia Coppola, based on the short stories by James Franco

Starring: James Franco, Emma Roberts, Val Kilmer, Nat Wolff, Christian Madsen, Chris Messina, Keegan Allen, Colleen Camp, Olivia Crocicchia, Zoe Levin, Don Novello, Bo Mitchell, Sam Dillon, Jack Kilmer, Claudia Levy

Year: 2013

Runtime: 100 minutes

Country: US

Festivals:

Tribeca 2014
EIFF 2014

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