Many films have attempted to capture the complexities of teen life, but only a select few have actually succeeded in tapping into the tricky, ever-shifting cultural zeitgeist. Richard Linklater’s Dazed And Confused, John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club and, more recently, Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks Of Being A Wallflower all come to mind as teen-targeted movies which accurately translated some of the humor, heartbreak and restlessness of their respective eras to the big screen (though Perks is recent, it’s an adaptation of Chbosky’s influential ’90s novel).
Palo Alto deserves to rank among those classics of teen cinema. Like them, it holds a magnifying glass up to modern teenagers, finds something of value to say about their lives and communicates its message with impressive elegance. However, as directed by Gia Coppola (yes, niece of Sofia, granddaughter of Francis Ford), Palo Alto takes a detached, almost documentarian approach to charting the indiscretions of its subjects. Unlike Linklater, Hughes and Chbosky, Coppola has chosen to excise the feel-good kitsch almost entirely, instead peddling in the familiar terrors of illicit drugs, casual sex, pointless violence and, perhaps even worse, all-consuming apathy. The result is a staggeringly powerful drama which disquiets in just how loudly it resonates.
Coppola (who also penned the script, massively improving upon James Franco’s mediocre short story collection of the same name) builds her narrative around three deeply troubled high schoolers living in the titular locale, an affluent California suburb. The timid, virginal and possibly depressed April (Emma Roberts) harbors a crush on her sketchy soccer coach Mr. B (Franco) while also quietly pining after sensitive pothead Teddy (Jack Kilmer). Meanwhile, Teddy tries to clean up his act and control his reckless best friend Fred (Nat Wolff), a hellraiser with borderline-suicidal tendencies. And Fred’s occasional hookup Emily (Zoe Levin) has her own set of problems, trading sexual favors to Teddy, Fred and others in hopes of making a real connection.
As all three teens struggle to articulate their dissatisfaction with the drug-fueled ennui of their generation, they come close to grand revelations about the nature of their “affluenza,” as a recent hot-button court case about similarly entitled, ungoverned teens put it. But Coppola’s film isn’t meant to lecture. Like aunt Sofia’s The Bling Ring, Palo Alto takes a nearly clinical, removed approach, never passing judgment on its characters. And unlike that far inferior film, Palo Alto still manages to get under the skin of its typically unsympathetic protagonists. In doing so, Coppola elicits the necessary empathy to draw her audience into her characters’ troubled lives.
Roberts has always struck me as a talented actress stuck in terrible roles, and she really comes into her own here. April is a tricky character, oscillating between moments of youthful happiness and abject despair, but the actress handles it with admirable restraint. Even when April’s decisions are poor, Roberts lets us inside her head and makes her highly identifiable.
Kilmer, making one hell of a big-screen debut, plays Teddy as a noble-hearted but easily led teen. The actor is a natural in front of the camera (not much of a surprise considering his parentage), turning what could have been a one-note character into a compelling, complicated protagonist. And Levin makes the most of a less well-written role, filling even her silences with poignant desperation. The biggest surprise, though, is Wolff, who attacks his role with a terrifying, pent-up ferocity. Fred, a self-destructive sociopath, is a far cry from Wolff’s typical nice-guy roles, but the actor is scarily convincing, particularly during the film’s nail-biting final act.
The adults, too, benefit from Coppola’s strong writing and direction. As a dangerously charismatic predator, Franco is extremely effective (audiences may look at the performance in a different light now that Franco’s flirtations with an underage Instagram fan have come into the public eye), and Chris Messina accomplishes a jaw-dropping amount in his one scene as Fred’s closeted gay father.
As a showcase for Coppola’s directorial talents, Palo Alto is mightily convincing. Moving the camera in a dreamlike haze, she demonstrates great commitment to detailed mise-en-scene and evocative visuals. Much of the film’s eye-catching appearance should also be accredited to director of photographer Autumn Durald, who has clearly found a kindred spirit in the thoughtful Coppola. Striking images abound, from the heart crudely scrawled into a tree that Teddy and Fred mark for destruction to a lone car barreling down the wrong side of the highway in a last-ditch act of defiance.
Coppola also doesn’t neglect the human side of her story. Palo Alto is a visual treat, to be sure, but its achievements stretch far beyond that when you consider how deceptively tight and effective its narrative actually is. The characters struggle, stumble and often fall. However, even if only in an abstract way, Palo Alto‘s conclusion suggests that progress has been made, and that, somehow, in spite of all the battles not yet won, the protagonists’ lives have become a little less dark. Refreshingly, there’s hope to be found.
I can’t say whether you’ll find as much to love about Palo Alto as I did. It’s sure to divide audiences, based both on its content and on Coppola’s refusal to directly condemn the hedonistic, hard-drinking lifestyles of her characters. She’s more interested in articulating the identity crisis faced by many bored, overindulged teens today than solving it. Still, as a directorial debut, Palo Alto is clear, complex and confident. And as a reflection on teen life in America today, it’s bracingly powerful.
A disturbingly plausible meditation on teen life in America as seen through the eyes of the talented Gia Coppola, Palo Alto is an absolutely stunning accomplishment.