“Palo Alto” is a rarity in recent American high school cinema. It opens not with a raucous party or a messy make-out scene, but with two teenagers sitting in a beat-up old car, getting stoned, drinking and talking nonsense. Suddenly, the driver hits the gas, and the car smashes into a wall.
Such sudden, foolish accidents are often a reality of teenage life, and opening with a scene such as this makes it clear that first-time director Gia Coppola is aiming to create something greater than the typical high school drama.
Like her aunt Sofia, the already accomplished photographer has an eye for adolescent ennui, and in “Palo Alto,” she deftly captures how it feels to be young, bored, lustful and a little bit scared. In doing so, Gia Coppola has firmly established herself as a thrilling, intelligent young director, one every bit as unique and bright as her aunt Sofia, uncle Roman, grandmother Eleanor and grandfather Francis.
Yes, the Coppola dynasty continues to startle, and if the results were not so noteworthy, it might seem obnoxious. Interestingly, “Palo Alto” stars Emma Roberts, the daughter of Eric Roberts and niece of Julia, and Jack Kilmer, son of Val Kilmer and Joanne Whaley. Both stars are self-assured and wonderfully “real,” just like the film.
Based on actor James Franco’s short-story collection – yes, Franco is seemingly on a quest to win the award for busiest man in show business – this ensemble drama is centered on a group of realistically complex, often troubled teens.
April (Roberts) is a shy, introspective virgin with an odd home life and a crush on her soccer coach, “Mr. B,” played by … James Franco. She often baby-sits his young son, and finds herself the wide-eyed subject of his attention.
Things develop into an expected situation, but the performances of Roberts and Franco keep the clichéd student-teenager affair from feeling rote. Neither character is one-note, and under Coppola’s direction, both are memorably authentic.
Kilmer is Teddy, a quiet, floppy-haired youth who harbors a secret crush on April. After a post-party drive home results in a DUI, Teddy is forced to perform community service, and actually seems to take to it. However, the behavior of his best friend Fred (Nat Wolff) grows increasingly erratic and dangerous.
All of these sexual, drug-and-loneliness-fueled entanglements occur amid school days, parties and soccer games — the monotonous elements of high school life in suburbia. It is an emotional mosaic in which little “happens,” but every look, gesture and touch is bursting with desire.
“Palo Alto” is, then, clearly the work of a photographer, and there are shots of haunting beauty and bleak elegance. The film’s final third, especially, contains several startling moments, visually and thematically. Even the fate of Fred, a character who at first seems the dullest individual onscreen, becomes surprisingly involving.
What keeps “Palo Alto” from qualifying as a truly great film is the sense that it never arrives at any particularly new insight. Coppola’s findings about the teenage wasteland of high school are truthful and wise, but never quite surprising. This means that “Palo Alto” is a coming-of-age drama – period. But it is a successful one, and that is more than enough.
If the film heralds the arrival of a fine new director, it is also noteworthy for establishing that Franco is capable of subtlety as both an actor and a writer (who knew?), that Kilmer is a star in the making, and, most of all, that Roberts is one of her generation’s finest young actors.
The 23-year-old Roberts has perhaps the most perplexingly emotive eyes in recent cinema, coupled with a casual elegance and strength. She has now dabbled in indie films (“It’s Kind of a Funny Story”), genre fare (“Scream 4”), and television (“American Horror Story”), but “Palo Alto” indicates that Roberts’ most fascinating work is yet to come.
As for Coppola, her maturation as a writer and director will certainly be intriguing. Remember that aunt Sofia followed her debut, “The Virgin Suicides,” with the startlingly wonderful “Lost in Translation.” Gia Coppola’s next cinematic effort should be just as memorable.