Movie Review - Palo Alto

James Franco (left) and Emma Roberts in "Palo Alto"
Gia Coppola is the granddaughter of Francis Ford Coppola and this film is her directorial debut. Coppola wrote the screenplay. It's an adaptation of the book of the same name by James Franco. The book is a collection of short stories, inspired by Franco's own teenage memories. It includes submissions from actual students at Palo Alto High School, and this film feels sketchy in the way it would be from young, questioning, non-formed, direction-less people.

Emma Roberts stars as April, a possible virgin who plays soccer, gets good grades and is just a cool girl. She develops a crush on her soccer coach, Mr. B, played by James Franco. She babysits his son Michael who likes to play video games. Her innocence is exacerbated by her joining the video game play in one scene.

Jack Kilmer, the son of Val Kilmer (Top Gun and Heat), plays Teddy, a fellow teen that goes to April's school. Yet, he probably doesn't get as good grades. He's cool, but he'd sooner spend time driving around in his friend Fred's car, smoking marijuana. Teddy has an interest in April, but a missed opportunity with her at a party sends him on a troubled trajectory.

That missed opportunity and a few others also send April on a troubled trajectory that includes a kind of love affair with her older soccer coach. A scene where April jumps on her bed like a child and then practices pretending to be cool portends how troubled that trajectory will be. Even though the film is more from her point-of-view, it's the coach's outlook that presents a key theme. Mr. B says because he's older, he knows there aren't a lot of good things around, so he wants to latch onto her.

Revelations at the end of the film put into question his sincerity, but the recognition that there isn't a lot of goodness surrounding us, so focusing or zeroing on something that is pure or a source of goodness is something many characters here recognize. It speaks to a kind of desperation in the characters here as well. A lot of it is simply boredom, but the characters here feel a missing element, a need not being satisfied, one not provided by the white or middle-class privilege afforded them.

It's almost the antithesis of Franco's film Spring Breakers (2012). There are young people here who teeter on embracing things like crime and violence. Teddy in fact gets arrested, but instead of going further down that rabbit hole he's sent to community service. His service includes assisting at a library, which could have furthered his boredom but it doesn't. It answers his aimlessness in a way. A painting class does as well.

Coppola lets certain threads just hang without tying them up. One of which is Teddy's friend Fred, played by Nat Wolff. Fred is a jerk. There is a bubbling aggression or anger within him. One wonders where it originates.

There is a moment at the end where Fred reminded me of the character Plato from Rebel Without a Cause (1955). Fred is wearing a red jacket like Plato did. He's not holding a gun like Plato, but he is holding a weapon. The same or similar questioning emotion and sexuality seems also present.

It's not sure if Fred has the same negligent daddy issues as Plato. Fred's father is referenced once and it's when Teddy accuses him of being gay. Fred denies it. Yet, by the end, Fred is asking questions, which cross the line and push the notion of homosexuality. Whereas Plato's fate was sealed due to his wearing his love on his sleeve, Fred's fate is more up in the air or else lost going down the wrong way on a highway.

Instead of being mistakenly spurned by a friend, Fred is spurned by Emily, his briefly held, sexual partner. Emily, played by Zoe Levin, represents probably the most desperate and lost of all the teenagers here. Yet, her desire for love is no less than anyone else's. It's unfortunate that she goes about it through promiscuity, though her arc ends with her resistance of that.

Four Stars out of Five.
Rated R for strong sexual content, drug and alcohol use, and pervasive language.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 40 mins.


Popular Posts