Movie Review: Palo Alto brings surprising empathy to teen angst

Gia Coppola's directorial debut is more than the sum of its indie-hip parts.

Upon hearing the phrase, “a film adapted from actor James Franco’s story collection by Sofia Coppola’s 27-year-old niece,” one might understandably be tempted to make some… assumptions.

And on the surface, one’s assumptions might seem justified by Palo Alto, Gia Coppola’s festival-darling directorial debut. At first glance, the film evinces several of indiedom’s more cynically associated cliches — it’s acutely self-aware, proactively amateurish and more than a bit pretentious.

None of that, however, keeps Palo Alto from rising above its hipsterish connotations to become a uniquely empathetic and compelling piece of work.

Several interconnected plotlines weave their way through the movie, and any fan of edgy coming-of-age fare will find all of them familiar. Good girl April (Emma Roberts) navigates the cool-kid hierarchy of her high school and her complicated relationship with her single-dad soccer coach Mr. B (James Franco, aging nicely into believability). Sensitive, artistic Teddy (Jack Kilmer) suffers the costs of his uneasy friendship with unhinged troublemaker Fred (Nat Wolff). Introverted Emily (Zoe Levin) looks for love, and is branded the school slut for her efforts at finding something deeper.

These characters come together, break apart and reunite in a cleverly cyclical series of vignettes, testing relationships and loyalties as they struggle to define themselves from both their own perspectives, and one another’s. Palo Alto knows its lineage well, from Fast Times at Ridgemont High — which gets an explicit nod — up through Suburbia, Kids, Dazed & Confused and even Aunt Sofia’s The Virgin Suicides, and there’s nothing new in terms of the interaction here. There are parties, fights, hookups, and an insane amount of pot-smoking, along with plenty of sequences of bored teens wandering the day- and nighttime streets of their neighborhood, idly discussing what teens will.

Where Palo Alto really sets itself apart, though, is in its mood, which never allows the existential angst of its characters to overpower a subtle sense of brightness, even hope. The movie never devolves into empty parties, car accidents and casual blowjobs. By intercutting brief, dreamlike glimpses of characters alone in their own worlds and, most importantly, using both music and its absence to their fullest potential, Coppola brings substance to people that could easily have remained caricatures.

It doesn’t hurt that her actors turn in great, believable performances, either. Roberts, in particular, is a revelation, completely erasing American Horror Story’s narcissistic celebubitch from the viewer’s mind with a few awkward glances and moments stolen alone in her bedroom.

Yeah, Palo Alto is every bit as indie-hip as the personalities that brought it to life. But it’s more than that, too — it’s a high-school-is-hell film that doesn’t shy away from the darker truths of teen turmoil, but also doesn’t sacrifice its heart on the altar of everything-sucks bleakness. And while it’s not a tour de force or triumph of filmmaking, it is certainly an impressive coming-out for Coppola.

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