Palo Alto couldn’t be more cool and hip if it was set in Williamsburg. A slew of upper echelon Hollywood names have come together to transfer James Franco’s short stories to the big screen (as if the mere act of Franco writing a novel wasn’t already encumbered with swagger) which didn’t fill anyone with hope, because a lot of big names usually means a film about not much other than big names. Throw in the name of a new Coppola, Gia, granddaughter to Francis Ford and niece to Roman, and the added scrutiny and possible malaise of yet another member of the Coppola family attempting to carve out a directorial throne makes for a dire prejudgement. If any further doubt needed casting, Palo Alto falls into the film-about-angsty-teenagers category, which can often be misguided.
What a relief then, to find Gia Coppola’s directorial debut is a pleasingly authentic view of teenage life that actual teenagers live, not, ironically, a Hollywood version of it. Themes of nihilism and teenage affection are portrayed in a way that would make your teenage-self proud – it’s the feeling of ‘no-one understands me’ being understood.
The plot meanders, following the aimless lives of April (Emma Roberts), Teddy (Jack Kilmer, son of Val) and Fred (Nat Wolff) who all search for something to fill the meaningless blanks in their lives.
When they’re just kicking back, Teddy and Fred play a game familiar to anyone who has ever been bored. It’s the ‘what if’ game – a boredom cure that is supposed to be light-hearted, yet Teddy and Fred take it very seriously – another affectation of teenagers; apathy towards the serious stuff, but serious about very irrelevant questions, like “what would you do if you were an Egyptian?” It’s a humorous way of looking at teenage apathy.
April and Teddy have an archetypal relationship in which they both desire each other, but circumstances lead them to other romantic pursuits in a strikingly empathetic will-they-won’t-they scenario. Teddy receives passionless oral sex and April looks to her football coach (Franco) for emotional nourishment, but it’s not the tired teacher crush seen in Another One of Those Teen Movies, it’s a fling with a sinister edge to it.
Platitudes must be directed towards Franco for his part in the sordid affair, because you can almost taste his self-loathing which piles on top of the rest of the authentic parts that make this film so relatable.
The portrayal of adults is in keeping with the authenticity – they’re no longer the infallible guardians of fun they were when you were younger. When you grow up, you start to realise that after grownups told you all your life never to lie, that’s exactly what they do on a day-to-day basis. Once your teenage self sees them as the hypocritical truth-preventers that they are, every other flaw slowly dawns on you – they are drug users (April’s stepdad played by Val Kilmer), mentally unstable (Fred’s dad), manipulators (football coach) and don’t really love you (April’s mother awkwardly tries to show affection to prove her love).
It’s how teenagers see adults and it affects their lives hugely, so it’s pleasing to see it portrayed so venerably.
Everything about Palo Alto reflects modern teenage life right down to the soundtrack – current cool-core artists like Mac DeMarco and Dev Hynes aka Blood Orange have their tracks accompany the lives of the teenagers and it doesn’t feel as though they’ve been shoehorned in for brownie points. Like everything else, the soundtrack is carefully selected to represent teenage joie de vivre, angst, affection and boredom, and careful selection to portray apathy is a credit to everyone involved.