Palo Alto (Tribeca Film, R)

film palo-alto smIt’s one of those films that at once feels fresh and unexpected, but wholly fitting in with other things you like.

 

 

film palo-alto

When then-26-year old Gia Coppola’s film Palo Alto first surfaced at the Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals last year, most of the press the film got was related to the fact that Gia is Francis Ford Coppola’s granddaughter. (Don’t you feel old?) But that’s missing the point. Pedigree aside, Palo Alto is one of the best movies of the year. It’s one of those films that at once feels fresh and unexpected, but wholly fitting in with other things you like, and is comforting besides.

Palo Alto is based on a book of short stories by James Franco, who appears in a supporting role in the film and also served as producer. Franco has snuck up on me to become one of my favorite modern actors, not so much on account of ability or reliability, but more because of his fearlessness. I read his 2010 book Palo Alto: Stories right when it was released out of curiosity, and while I didn’t hate it as many of its reviewers did, I found it to be average at best, and memorable only for his inability to switch voices competently. (In that collection he often writes from the point of view of a girl, which he doesn’t pull off at all convincingly.) Since then I’ve all but forgotten about the book, to the extent that in watching the film adaptation I can’t remember if it’s an adaptation of just one of the stories from the book, or some combination of the stories.

Regardless, the movie focuses on a handful of characters. The one who feels like the “main” character, though that’s a debatable distinction, is April (Emma Roberts, whom I’ve always liked but had no good reason to until now), a nice, quiet girl trying to break out of being pigeonholed as such. The main way she does this is by sometimes smoking cigarettes and going to parties, but she spends more time keeping up with her homework and babysitting like the good girl that she is. Her soccer coach and the father of her babysitting charges is Mr. B (Franco), whom she may or may not have a crush on, and when at social gatherings she’s most willing to be talked into stuff by Teddy (Jack Kilmer), who has a crush on her and is another of the main characters. In most movies like this, Teddy would be either entirely corrupting or a sad sack, but here he’s neither: He’s a bad influence but not necessarily a bad kid, and he feels real in a way that characters his age rarely do in movies.

Teddy’s best friend is Fred (Nat Wolff), who is probably more of an outright bad guy than Teddy, though still charming and fun in his own way. Fred gets involved with Emily (Zoe Levin), perhaps only because she’s willing to have him and is somewhat less the nice girl than April.

If you haven’t gathered as much already, Palo Alto is one of those pleasingly directionless movies, more interested in making you remember what it feels like to be in high school and less interesting in actually telling you a story. Gia does a noticeably better job with the female characters in her film than Franco did in his book (and it’s worth mentioning that Palo Alto is the rare film with mostly women behind the camera: director, cinematographer, screenwriter, production designer, etc.), but she also does an equally impressive job with her male characters. It may have been a misstep to use family members for small functions in the film—Talia Shire and Jacqui Getty turn up in small roles, and Jason Schwartzman is on the soundtrack—as it underlines the Coppola name more than would already be the case, but it’s hard to get upset about this when Gia more than lives up to the standard set by her elders. | Pete Timmermann

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