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PALO ALTO (review)

palo_altoPALO ALTO
Written and Directed by Gia Coppola
Starring Emma Roberts, Jack Kilmer and James Franco
Fred: Where are we going?

Teddy: Fucking nowhere.

Lately, any film I see about adolescents that has any interest in doing its subjects justice has played out like an anthropological exploration of sorts. From SPRING BREAKERS to THE BLING RING, we watch these young people in their natural habitats, as they party excessively, disregard their surroundings and those that care about them, and generally treat their futures like garbage, as if they genuinely believe that there will always be one waiting for them when they’re done having their fun. First time filmmaker, Gia Coppola’s PALO ALTO, based on a book of short stories by James Franco, doesn’t deviate from this perspective but she does demonstrate a stronger sympathy for her characters that allows for a vulnerability that is scarcely seen in these films. As far as debuts go, Coppola’s is brave, brash and bewildering, which suits the film itself perfectly.


The film opens on a pointless conversation between two very stoned young men in a car parked in an empty lot at night. As they debate whether one of them could feasibly go back to medieval times and assume the role of king, which centers more around the implausibility of being king instead of the more obvious impossibility of time travel, we are introduced to Teddy (Jack Kilmer, son of Val) and Fred (Nat Wolff). They are friends with what seems like very little in common who don’t realize how toxic their friendship is for each other. From there we meet April (Emma Roberts), a virginal student who can’t help but flirt with her soccer coach (James Franco) and Emily (Zoe Levin), who uses sex to get people to like her without realizing how little she likes herself. Yes, we can reduce these characters to such simple types but keeping their issues simple allows Coppola to get very close to where these problems may be originating from. The world is a confusing place, especially for all the lost adults we meet briefly along the way, inducing Val Kilmer and Chris Messina, and these young people just drift aimlessly through their lives, stumbling without understanding why. The game is afoot but they don’t quite know how to play or that they need to play to make it. And while they may not understand their insecurity, it certainly plays out in their decisions whether they like it or not.


Coppola, like her aunt, Sofia, is a visual director with a terrific eye and a keen sense of finding meaning in how she frames the story. She too seems attracted towards ennui but her approach and interest in the topic seem more active than Sofia’s, which makes for a more engaging experience than say Sofia’s SOMEWHERE. Franco’s involvement is somewhat suspect given that he wrote the source material and subsequently places himself in the position of the sleazy soccer coach that opts to find love in his young students rather than make an actual effort to manage a relationship with someone his own age. That said, the character is meant to come across as creepy so it works within the context of the film. Regardless, Coppola elevates PALO ALTO past any art imitating life connections to craft a very poignant, very touching piece that is free of the pretension it so easily could have embodied. In closing, she has taken all that is juvenile and has made it adult and accomplished.

4.5 sheep

Your turn!

How many sheep would you give Palo Alto?


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