Film Reviews: PALO ALTO

Read two critical perspectives on PALO ALTO (2014, Gia Coppola), from Michael Guillén and Tien-Tien Jong.

Emma Roberts in PALO ALTO.

Greatness in the Details: PALO ALTO

by Michael Guillén

Each generation feels the need to express in their own way the tumultuous transition from late adolescence into early adulthood, that time when—as Joni Mitchell phrased it—”cartwheels turn to car wheels through the town.”  It’s a familiar narrative made all the more true for being told again and again, generation after generation, and especially notable when said generations are of a filmmaking family such as the Coppolas.  In 1983, Francis Ford did an S.E. Hinton double-take with The Outsiders and Rumblefish, and Sofia Coppola scored the opulent courts of the French aristocracy with a youthful rock and roll vibe in Marie Antoinette (2006).  Now Sofia’s niece Gia Coppola picks up her kin’s craft to present a sensuous portrait of disaffected youth in her accomplished feature debut Palo Alto (2013), based on James Franco’s eponymous collection of short stories.

Palo Alto debuted at the Telluride Film Festival in August 2013, played the Venice Film Festival and Toronto International Film Festival in September 2013, the Tribeca Film Festival in April 2014, and screened most recently as the Centerpiece Program at the San Francisco International Film Festival in early May, its penultimate festival screening before opening theatrically.  Critical response on the festival circuit, with some reservation, has been uniformly enthused about watching a talent in the making, evident from the film’s elevation of a slight narrative into a visual feast compelled by careful craftsmanship.  In other words, this is a well-made movie worth watching, even if the story is well-known and suffers repetition.

Coppola weaves a character-driven tale from the episodic lives of the film’s four main protagonists: April (Emma Roberts), Teddy (Jack Kilmer), Fred (Nat Wolff), and Emily (Zoe Levin), supported by an ensemble of seasoned actors, including James Franco and Val Kilmer (yes, Jack’s father).  April is a doe-eyed girl who babysits for her soccer coach “Mr. B.” (Franco) because she’s attracted to him and the potential experience he represents.  She knows her fantasies are inappropriate and that she should be dating a boy more her age, like Teddy, who adores her and follows her around with puppy dog adoration.  Teddy is petulant over April’s lack of commitment, but basically he’s a good artistic kid who only gets into trouble because he hangs out with scofflaw influence Fred, who is hell-bent on self-destruction.  Emily, desperate to define herself through relationship, mistakes being easy for being loved and aims her sights on Fred.  That’s essentially the narrative thrust of the film, though it’s at the same time misleading as the energy of their four personalities, rendered in credible performances, moves the film forward, even if at times there is a sense of waiting for something to happen, a hesitation this side of anticipation, moments that surface and then capsize, expected disappointments and failed resolutions, all of which I would argue are not so much failings in the narrative as they are the film’s intended success in approximating the restless, uncertain lives of teenagers in that twilight stage before graduation when the future both beckons and threatens.

Uncertainty becomes Palo Alto‘s reigning tone, mingled with a foreboding aura of Lynchian strangeness as these high school innocents initiate themselves into life experience, learning what books won’t teach them in school.  Palo Alto poignantly depicts the adolescent necessity (desire?) to learn from life, and the willingness to learn through mistakes.  It also shows that the adults who should be helping adolescents avoid these mistakes are often too busy making their own to be of much help.  In fact, one of Palo Alto‘s most provocative themes is of adult predation on adolescence.  April’s mother infantilizes her into submission, ignoring her need to become a young woman.  Mr. B. seduces intimacy from the young women on his soccer team.  And in a gratuitous, but luridly enticing scene, Mitch (the ever-charismatic Chris Messina) hits on Teddy with all the couch bouncing suspense of a cat playing with a mouse.

But it’s not so much what happens in this film as how it’s shown happening and Coppola achieves this in a winning collaboration with cinematographer Autumn Cheyenne Durald who accentuates the film’s uncertain tone by never really letting you know where Palo Alto is filmed.  Ostensibly we’re in Palo Alto, in Northern California, but there’s a significant insinuation that we’re in every town suffering from suburban malaise; the Anytown that every teenager wants to escape and exchange for someplace special.  There’s also an indication that the narrative is unfolding just before Graduation, yet the film looks lit by the golden afternoon light of late Summer / early Autumn, so there’s an intriguing seasonal disconnect.  Durald commandeers the twilight hour to gorgeously light every face that comes before her camera, even going so far as to backlight hair to provide an auric glow.  Her interstitials—bridging seemingly disparate scenes—are immaculately composed, helping to rudder one scene to the other.  Even a spilt strawberry milkshake on an asphalt parking lot abstracts into beauty under Durald’s lens, and the attention to decorative details in April’s bedroom speak volumes to her character’s childhood and its suffocating entitlements, as well as her growing desire to put away childish things.

Accompanied by William Storksen’s desultory score (punctuated by pop tunes that do the most to situate the film in place and time), the overall effect is sensuous, engaging, and pleasing to the eye and ear.  In fact, almost every single actor in Palo Alto is either drop-dead gorgeous or undeniably charismatic.  You might have heard this coming-of-age tale before, but you won’t mind watching it again with these actors in these roles who color familiar themes of adolescent indecision and frustration with fresh, honest, new faces.  Again, we know the story, but we don’t know these young faces, most of them in their first roles, which serves the film, and eventually proves satisfying to the audience.

Here Gia takes after her grandfather in choosing faces readily loved by the camera.  In the lineage of Matt Dillon’s early performances for Francis Ford, Jack Kilmer stands out as a true natural, meant to be filmed, and sure of a career if he wants one.  As does the luscious Zoe Levin, with whom Coppola creates a stunning multitextual portrait, watching her lovely character walk slowly into a scene while male voiceovers recount her willingness to be gang-raped at a party.  It’s a charged disturbing description of her character, juxtaposed visually and aurally.  It’s these kind of moments, these experiments with performance, editing and sound, that prove Coppola has been practicing her trade long before making this movie, learning from her grandfather on the set of Twixt, and trusting the informative guidance of her collaborators during a shoot.  She, and her collaborators, are a filmmaking team to keep an eye on.


Michael Guillén is a freelance film journalist with one foot in the San Francisco Bay Area and the other in Boise, Idaho.  He’s a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle, has served as media liaison for the Sun Valley Film Festival, and as a guest programmer for the Treefort Film Festival, Boise Film Underground, and San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.  He is a contributing writer to FilmInternational, movieScope, Ray and Fusion magazines, as well as online sites Fandor, MUBI, Twitch, and Greencine, while administering his own website The Evening Class.  He looks forward to reviewing more films, eating well, and lifting a glass of wine now and again in his capacity as editor for EatDrinkFilms.


An Imitation of Greatness: PALO ALTO

by Tien-Tien L. Jong

“I think all movies and TV and video games these days are pointless.” – April (Emma Roberts)

It is a droll, and not altogether helpful, conceit for the characters in a film to predict the criticism that is likely to be levied against it, and only one of a number of tonal missteps in Palo Alto  (2014), a film full of adolescent characters fumbling towards self-realization. Selected as the Centerpiece film at the 57th San Francisco International Film Festival, Palo Alto  is likely to garner a fair share of attention this spring for its intriguing provenance and multiple claims to fame. Palo Alto  is the big-screen adaptation of actor-turned-fiction-writer James Franco’s 2010 short story collection, and the directorial debut of Gia Coppola (granddaughter of Francis Ford Coppola and niece of Sofia Coppola), and stars Emma Roberts (niece of Julia Roberts), Jack Kilmer (son of Val Kilmer), and Nat Wolff (son of actress Polly Draper). It is a film that feels ambitious and aspirational in spurts, but never quite allows its audience to shake off the feeling that we’re only watching an imitation of greatness, a passion project put on by the lesser-known relatives of famous people, rather than a fully-realized work of art.

Palo Alto  is constructed out of commonplace scenes in the lives of 16-year-old April (Emma Roberts), her artistic classmate Teddy (Jack Kilmer), Teddy’s troubled best friend Fred (Nat Wolff), and the pretty blonde both boys hook up with, Emily (Zoe Levin). The plot is tricky to describe—suffice it to say that a lot happens, without it feeling like anything ever happens. All four of the teenage protagonists feel like familiar, vaguely sketched, unoriginal “high-school” types, who could just as easily thrive in an episode of Degrassi  or The Secret Life of the American Teenager.

The film is both alarmist in tone (with lots of gratuitous scenes of teenagers partying and playing drinking games) while also managing to feel strangely tone-deaf about actual teen behavior. Palo Alto  feels like the work of creators a generation removed from the material at hand. Just as there are some books that you can only read and really appreciate when you’re very young, there are some stories you can only tell while you’re still at a certain age—at 27 and 36, director Gia Coppola and Franco already seem to have passed the time where they can successfully pull off this material. The dialogue in Palo Alto  strives to achieve the banal speech of high-schoolers (“Do you think it hurts to shoot yourself?” “That tree had probably been there forever, like 100 years. Now it’s gone.”), but it tries a little too hard and feels unconvincing in the process, as if written by people who can only just barely remember the experience of being 14, 15, 16. Palo Alto  attempts to organize its characters around the theme of growing self-awareness and identity (the first line of dialogue we hear can be paraphrased as “who would you rather be?”), but the film itself seems clueless about the actual experience of adolescent identity. Palo Alto  pales in comparison to Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen  (2003), one of the most realistic-sounding films to have ever been made about the experience of being a troubled adolescent (in large part because Thirteen  was co-written by then-15-year-old Nikki Reed), and the scenes in Palo Alto  which are meant to shock also feel passé and forgettable in light of Gus Van Sant’s more accomplished and powerful Elephant  (2003).

The screenplay by Gia Coppola is a partial translation of Franco’s book—only roughly five of his short stories are represented here—but the four storylines frequently feel like odd bedfellows, not quite fitting comfortably together or building towards a more significant narrative. This is not to say, however, that it is the screenplay which is mainly to blame for the film’s lackluster characterizations and narrative momentum. It wouldn’t be fair to evaluate the screenplay without some consideration of the source material Coppola had to work with: Franco’s Palo Alto: Stories itself reads like an imitation of Hemingway or Cormac McCarthy, but by a writing student who only recognizes the superficial aspects of what makes these other writers great. The stories in Franco’s collection have the impression of being entirely written in three-word-long sentences, using three-letter-long words. (Here’s a sample of Franco’s writing from Palo Alto, just to give you an idea: “I took another puff on the cigarette. It was a Camel. Some of the Mexicans called to me. They were carrying their soccer bags and water bottles to the end of the field. They were waving. I waved.”… “He’s on the football team. He is not handsome. He’s fit, but he’s a beast, very hairy arms and legs. I’m told that I am good-looking, but I hate my body, and my face, and my curly hair. And I’m shy.”) Keeping in mind the very real limitations of her source material, the fact that Coppola is able to achieve any sense of coherence, and even some poetry, out of such stale prose is actually no small feat.

There are signs of potential in the filmmaking here too, even though the cumulative effect is plainly underwhelming. The best thing about Palo Alto  is its assured sense of visual storytelling and its delicate, thought-provoking compositions. Gia Coppola, who studied photography at Bard College, and DP Autumn Durald compose several visually rich sequences, including a haunting and surreal seduction scene, and it’s a shame the rest of the film is unable to match these unique, evocative moments. Aesthetically, several scenes from Palo Alto  recall the work of Sofia Coppola, and in this directorial debut, Gia even struggles with many of the same thematic dilemmas that her aunt Sofia has encountered throughout her own filmmaking career. It’s inherently difficult to make a film about boredom that doesn’t itself come off as boring, or to make a film about shallowness that isn’t itself shallow, or a film about alienation that doesn’t alienate its audience. Whereas Sofia has mastered the challenge of representing a state of being without acquiescing to it, in Palo Alto,  Gia Coppola does not manage to capture aimlessness in a way that doesn’t ultimately feel aimless. It’s one of the most difficult balancing acts to pull off in filmmaking, and with time Gia may be able to match the level of mastery that her aunt Sofia and grandfather Francis Ford have occasionally reached. Too much of Palo Alto  is spent on trying to capture the type of arguments you can only have (or at least, should only have) when you’re still a kid, such as who cares less about anything in the world, and in doing so, Gia Coppola commits one of the worst mistakes a new filmmaker can make—it’s not very interesting to watch.


In a former life, Tien-Tien Jong worked as the Director of the Dartmouth Film Society and as a coordinator for the shorts division of the Telluride Film Festival. She loves animation, silent film, and film noir, and has a soft spot for ballet and opera in British, French and American films from the 1940s-’60s. In her free time, she enjoys playing the piano, reading graphic novels and struggling with WordPress. Her favorite theaters are the beautiful Grand Lake Theater in Oakland and the Castro in SF.

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