Hey, guess what? High school sucked. And even if your high school experience wasn’t as rotten and wicked as the ones experienced by the characters that populate Gia Coppola‘s Palo Alto, it seems highly likely that you’ll still find plenty to both relish and revolt from in the filmmaker’s debut feature. This isn’t everyone‘s high school experience, but it’s certainly someone’s.
Coppola adapted some of the short story work of James Franco, who also co-stars in the film, for her first feature, and if nothing else, it sure makes Franco’s written work appear instantly compelling. It’s fairly obvious that the film has been cobbled together from assorted stories, as there is a lackadaisical nature to the connections between characters and plots that doesn’t seem exactly lazy, but is undoubtedly the product of some disconneted source material. At its heart, Palo Alto is about the almost-not-quite relationship between April (Emma Roberts, who is just excellent) and Teddy (Jack Kilmer), a pair of high school students who are prone to getting into spats of trouble, or at least hanging around people who don’t have their best interests at heart. There’s a lot of ill-advised hanging around in Palo Alto.
The film opens with Teddy and his best pal Fred (Nat Wolff) sitting in a parked car in an empty lot, whiling away the hours in what appears to be a traditional way: getting fucked up and talking shit. The film routinely returns to the duo, as Fred goes deeper into darkness, just as Teddy slowly starts to pull himself out of it.
Fred is obsessed with a few things – oddly specific hypothetical situations, smoking pot, drinking anything he can get his hands on, and being a total shithead. That’s really the only word for it, and Wolff’s work as Fred – and yes, it sure seems like work to portray this much of a totally damaged asshole on the big screen – is some of the finest he’s ever done, and certainly the best performance in the film. Wolff has already pulled off sweet roles with grace, from the confused youngster in Admission to one-half of the Naked Brothers Band in the Nickelodeon series of the same name, but Fred marks a turn in his career, a big one and a bold one. He’s absolutely terrifying to watch on the screen, but he’s also so engrossing that it’s hard to not hang on his every move. Kilmer and Roberts may make up the heart of the film, but Wolff is its twisted soul.
Speaking of Kilmer, the moment you realize that Jack Kilmer is Jack Kilmer, son of Val (who appears in the film just twice, both times clearly baked out of his gourd), it’s hard to shake. (Thank God Julia Roberts is not in this movie, too, or this could get really confusing.) The younger Kilmer is very good – it’s certainly surprising that this is his first film – though it’s nothing short of jarring when he tips his face just so or moves his mouth in a certain way and then, bam!, that’s Val Kilmer’s son and he looks just like his dad. No, jarring, really – but then the film goes on and he’s no longer Jack Kilmer, he’s just Teddy again.
Elsewhere, not every performance proves quite as canny.
James Franco’s turn in the film is, quite frankly, distracting. As the predatory Mr. B, teen soccer coach, indeterminate teacher of things, and straight up creep, Franco is never not predatory. There’s never a moment when audiences will think, hey, maybe he’s not going to try to get it on with his own students, and that feels both false and overly uncomfortable. Franco’s one-note performance (played in the key of “skeevy”) looks even worse after yet another male in a position of power tries to put the moves on another one of the teen characters, managing to do it in a profoundly disturbing but far more believable way.
But Franco’s work is one of the few false notes of the film, which routinely feels very accomplished and very true. Coppola and Franco (the writer) get the little details of teenage boredom just right – this is a high school film that feels like it’s actually set in high school – but the larger plot movements often prove too big to swallow. High school sucks, but does it always have to suck this much? Still, Palo Alto often feels far more true than it proves false, and it’s all those little details and obvious care that make it stand out amongst a sea of other bored teenager films. The Coppola women sure know a thing or two about teenage malaise, and the influence of Gia’s aunt Sofia is obvious throughout the feature. Palo Alto would make a hell of a triple feature alongside The Virgin Suicides and The Bling Ring, though the younger Coppola has clearly already started honing her own eye and interests with her auspicious feature debut.
The Upside: Good performances from Roberts and (the younger) Kilmer, a great performance from Wolff, a well-constructed and consistent tone and tension, cool soundtrack, gets the details of teenage malaise exactly right.
The Downside: James Franco’s performance is one-note, the film has obviously been cobbled together from a number of different stories, goes over-the-top with large storylines.
On the Side: The film marks Jack Kilmer’s very first cinematic role, though the son of Val Kilmer and Joanne Whalley grew up expressly not wanting to follow in his famous parents’ footsteps.