Palo Alto came out in May of last year and it never quite got as much attention as it deserved. A lot of that is because the film is based on a collection of short stories by James Franco and a lot of critics apparently decided ahead of time that Palo Alto was some sort of vanity project.
Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Palo Alto is actually one of the better films of 2014, a minor masterpiece of ennui that also serves as a promising directorial debut for Gia Coppola. (Of course, Gia’s aunt Sofia made her directorial debut with an ennui-centric literary adaptation of her own, The Virgin Suicides.)
Palo Alto follows several teenagers over the course of one school year. (It’s no coincidence that, at one point, Fast Times At Ridgemont High shows up on a TV screen.) The film itself is deceptively plotless, with its occasionally drifting narrative mirroring the lives of protagonists who literally have no direction. April (Emma Roberts), who is too intelligent to really fit in with either her shallow friends or her flakey family, plays soccer and has a crush on both Teddy (Jack Kilmer) and her coach, Mr. B (James Franco, playing an unapologetically sleazy character). Teddy is a talented artist who, after a drunk driving accident, finds himself on probation and sentenced to do community service. Making it difficult for Teddy to stay out of trouble is his best friend, Fred (Nat Wolff), who hides his sociopathic nature behind a constant stream of jokes. And then there’s Emily (Zoe Levin), who hides her insecurities behind a wall of blow jobs and demeaning sexual encounters.
As for the adults of Palo Alto, they’re for the most part a collection of grim but ineffective authority figures and parents who don’t want to grow up. Mr. B hides his predatory nature behind a kind smile and a paternal nature. April’s stepfather (Val Kilmer) is permanently stoned. Teddy’s mother is unconcerned with her son’s drinking. Meanwhile, Fred’s father (Chris Messina) offers weed to and hits on his son’s friends.
And it may all sound a bit familiar. Every year, it seems like there is a countless number of indie films about directionless teenagers and irresponsible parents. But Palo Alto is distinguished by Gia Coppola’s confident and frequently surreal direction. Coppola has a good eye for detail and, as a result of the gorgeous cinematography of Autumn Durald, the film is always interesting to watch regardless of how familiar the story may seem. The entire cast does a good job as well, with Emma Roberts and Nat Wolff as clear stand-outs.
And, I have to admit, that on a personal level, there was a lot of Palo Alto to which I related. Whether it was the awkward conversations between April and Teddy or the sad look on Emily’s face as she stared at her reflection, there were so many small moments that just felt true. As I watched Palo Alto, it was impossible for me not to think about my own time in high school. I knew quite a few Teddys. I even knew a few Freds. And sometimes, I was April and then other times, I could have been any of the other characters who wander throughout Palo Alto.
Don’t listen to the haters. Palo Alto is more than worth your time.