Gia Coppola is the latest in her distinguished family to join the movie business. Given the Coppola oeuvre is stylish, moody and serious — Gia is the 27-year-old granddaughter of Francis Ford and the niece of Sofia — her debut film is a low-fi exploration of teen angst loosely adapted from a book of short stories by actor/author/model/teacher/photographer/painter/poet/aerospace intern James Franco, and sits snugly on the same shelf with the portfolio of those who share her surname.
Palo Alto is a coming of age film that feels like a rite of passage itself — the work of a young but mature-minded artist saying goodbye to one stage of her life and moving into another, reflecting on a time and setting not too far from her own in the manner of something obviously partly semi-autobiographical.
The story focuses mostly on trouble-with-the-law dramas revolving around mischief-maker Teddy (Jack Kilmer), who is sentenced to community service in a library after a car accident, and the life of shy and pretty schoolgirl April (Emma Roberts) who finds herself embroiled in a sexual relationship with her soccer coach (played by Franco).
The film takes place in its eponymous Northern California setting, one of the most expensive and best-educated cities in America. Whittle down to its basics, the premise is rich kids run amok, the tone a whiff of Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring (2013) mixed with the stoner vibes of Richard Linklater’s early films Slacker (1991) and Dazed and Confused (1993).
Characters guzzle booze, smoke joints, light things on fire, take on dares, make out, vomit in bushes, drunkenly try to bluff through conversations with cops, and ruminate on the nature of existence with questions like “on the scale of one to baked, how baked are you?”
Considerable time (for the audiences and for the characters) is spent at a house party. Purely in terms of subject matter there’s little that separates Palo Alto from a dunderhead party movie — like, say, 2012’s Hangover-ish found footage film, Project X, which lingers in the memory like a particularly nasty headache.
But stylistically the differences are striking, and interesting subtleties arise out of Coppola’s reflective focus — from the pensive nature of the dialogue to the gently probing way her cameras bob around their subjects — always ready to inherit their secrets.
The film’s most powerful message makes a point about societal context, particularly that struggling kids in upper class environments aren’t necessarily spoiled brats clogging up the arties of bourgeois society — or if they are, it may not be their fault. The problems and anxieties teenagers face are universal; perhaps that isn’t a bad thing to be reminded of.
Palo Alto’s drifty narrative and bits and piecey structure, presumably a reflection of its source material, is given its greatest anchor in the story of Teddy, a decent kid walking a volatile path between youthful hijinks and dangerous hedonism with potentially life-changing ramifications. The actor who plays him, Jack Kilmer, is another example of an artist following the family trade (his father is Val, who has a small supporting role).
Wrong side of the tracks and puberty blues territory has been traveled by dramatists many times before, and while Coppola doesn’t have anything particularly new or interesting to say she still brings a freshness to the material. There’s a sense that these young angst-ridden lives may not be unique in a storytelling context, but are nevertheless deserving of attention.