Thursday, May 15, 2014

Palo Alto

A funny thing happened during my screening of Palo Alto. As I watched the film with many other adult attendees, our screening was occasionally interrupted by inappropriate laughter from a handful of young women watching the movie with us. These four women (a term I’m using loosely, as they appeared to be not a day over 16) laughed during a few of Palo Alto’s most intense moments. Moments of proclaimed love, lost desire, and carnal frustration. It seemed so odd to me that the people who were closest in age to the characters in the film found the desperate acts by those characters to be funny. Palo Alto doesn’t make light of these events, so why did these young women perceive it that why? And then it hit me: If I saw this movie when I was their age, I might be laughing too.

Perhaps high school-set films that accurately convey the plight of young, confused minds can only be fully appreciated with years of distance. Watching a mid-30s teacher announce his love for a 16-year-old student, for example, might seem humorously false to a 16-year-old girl. But for myself, and presumably the filmmakers behind Palo Alto, this declaration of love is far from funny; it’s painfully sad and hopelessly pathetic.
Palo Alto is written and directed by Gia Coppola (granddaughter of Francis, niece of Sofia), and is based on a collection of short stories by James Franco. Coppola was just 25 years old when she shot the film, which could help explain its haunting precision. There are no villains in Palo Alto, yet nearly everyone is corrupt. Inversely, every character has moments of kindness. Good and evil do not exist in Gia Coppola’s film; everyone is human, everyone is flawed. Instead of manipulating the audience into judging a character for their poor behavior, Coppola insists that we sit back and observe. How do you judge someone for doing something stupid, when they don’t yet have the life experience to know what something stupid really is?

At the center of the film is April (Emma Roberts), the type of intelligent, over-analytical teen who goes to a party and chain smokes from afar, gently studying the drunken buffoons around her; Emily (Zoe Levin), who uses sex for attention for reasons unexplained; Fred (Nat Wolf), a hard-partying fuck-up seconds away from a psychological breakdown; and Teddy (Jack Kilmer, son of Val), a sensitive kid equally susceptible to April’s unique charm and Fred’s manic rage.

Many adults contribute as well, including James Franco as a shifty soccer coach, Jacqui Getty (Gia’s own mother) as April’s spaced-out mom, Chris Messina as Fred’s perilous father, and Val Kilmer, who steals his cameo with just a few words of dialogue. But really, this film is all about young talents. Talents who collectively give four of the best, most accurate depictions of American high school teenage life I’ve ever seen. Roberts is a consistent, quiet sensation, while Wolf creates a mesmerizing portrayal of a teen gone mad. Jack Kilmer, in his debut performance, has clearly attained the alluring mystery of his father, and Levin subtly turns Emily into Palo Alto’s most interesting and conflicted character.
It’s important to note that the motivations of the people within Palo Alto are never clear. Instead of defining specific acts within the film, Coppola allows Palo Alto to play out like a moving poem of visual emotion. There’s no overarching conflict to overcome, the conflict is youth and confusion and love. Nothing helps you get over that but time.

The film has a fascinating visual aesthetic, which makes it clear that Gia Coppola has been playing very close attention to the way her aunt makes her films. (If you’re a remote fan of Sofia Coppola’s first feature, The Virgin Suicides, you should be doing everything you can to track Palo Alto down.) Autumn Durald’s cinematography is bright and fluid and beautiful, while the music of Blood Orange and Robert Schwartzman (brother of Jason) helps sustain a hypnotic atmosphere throughout.

Obviously, Palo Alto is a family affair. You can cry nepotism to the fact that Gia Coppola was even able to get the film made, but in Palo Alto, I didn’t see a young filmmaker cashing in on the talent she was born into, I saw a wholly original work of art that I won’t soon forget. Many will be turned off by the film – some will roll their eyes, others will laugh. But some will stare at the screen in a trance, repeating to themselves in shock that, “Holy shit, someone actually gets it.” A-

24 comments:

  1. I'm definitely going to be watching this film, but I have to admit I'm sour. Based off of the trailer it seems like Gia is very "influenced" by her aunts cinematic style. Close ups, indie slow jam music, car window shots, and of course the never ending supply of angst from pretty white kids with problems(I love Sofia, btw). When does the line between inspiration and paying unintentional homage blur?

    I'm really happy you enjoyed it. I'll keep your thoughts in mind and try to squash my bias, because it actually does sound interesting.

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    1. Definitely a fair criticism, and one Gia's been getting a lot for the film. For me, I actually don't mind at all if the visual/mood/tone inspirations/homages are blatant. As long as the stories are different, I'm cool with a filmmaker pulling for wherever they pull from. And I can promise you that story wise, Palo Alto is unlike anything Sofia has made. It's like the anti-Bling Ring, truly. I hope you dig it man.

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  2. This is a film that I'm eager to see as I hope that there's another Coppola to root for. Plus, I like the premise of it though I'm not entirely surprised that 16-year-olds wouldn't like this film.

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    1. I think you'll like this. Definitely another Coppola to root for. I'll be very interested to hear your take on it.

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  3. I've been wanting to see this since it started filming so I can only hope I'll enjoy it as much as you did.

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    1. Me too! It's different, but I just adored it.

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  4. Wow, I wish I could have connected with this like you did. I just found it completely aimless and way too ironically boredom

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    1. And I totally get that. Honestly, I was surprised how much I connected with it myself. Definitely not a film that will be loved by all.

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  5. Different age groups will certainly take away varying perspectives from this movie. I loved it, especially-as you pointed out-that it was not biased or stilted in its presentation of the characters. There were certainly clear reflections of Sofia's perspective and technique, but a person could have worse role models.

    Coming from the John Hughes generation this is a deeper, darker look at teen life. Then again, mine was also the "Less Than Zero" generation, so we had plenty of dark happening, too, all around the edges of the party.

    Definitely worth going to see all the young talent involved, not to mention some of the seasoned vets--Val was priceless!

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    1. So priceless! I'm so happy to liked this one and gave me that push to check it out. And yes, very interesting what different generations bring to the overall viewing experience.

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  6. I read a few reviews that made me think it was a Netflixer, but after reading this, maybe I will try to check it out in theaters if it comes near me. I'm so torn.

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    1. I think you can wait for Netflix, for sure. It's isn't necessarily a film that needs to be seen on the big screen, you know? I really hope you enjoy it!

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  7. I'm very trepidatious about this film. Just the idea of it being based off something James Franco wrote sounds like it's something very polarizing. I have very mixed feeling towards the work of Sofia (and it's been decades since FFC made anything worth talking about - at least in my opinion), and the majority of Franco's directorial/written work feels very true to source to a fault so this could either be as good as you claim it to be or just be extremely pretentious. I've certainly laughed at some of Franco's work and fallen asleep to it as well, so just having a film based on something he wrote makes me feel like this could be another pretentious snooze-fest, but your review does make the film seem more intriguing to me.

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    1. I'm right there with you man. I have trouble with A LOT of the stuff Franco puts out. But believe me, Palo Alto is not written with that somewhat pretentious Franco vibe, honestly. That was my biggest fear going in, and I was happy that it didn't ring true. The characters in this film really talk how 16 and 17 year olds actually talk.

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  8. Though I was disappointed with The Virgin Suicides, I loved how it looked, so just for that, I will track Palo Alto down and see it. I feel like I could connect a lot with April, too -- I sit in the same place as her in crowds. The surname Coppola and "based on short stories by James Franco" makes it all the more intriguing. Love your review, Alex!

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    1. Thanks so much! The film does look amazing - splendid production design all around. April was such a complex and gorgeous character. Hope you like the film!

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  9. I've heard really good things about it, but it won't be released in cinemas here so I'll have to wait for it to come online :/ But based on the images you showed and from what I've seen online, it definitely has a Virgin Suicides feel to it :) Great review!

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    1. Thanks! I do hope it makes it your way soon. It's a different kind of film, but one I absolutely loved.

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  10. I really want to see this film, since the trailer looked as if it may be one of those teenage films that "gets it". I feel like I'm losing touch with these teen films already (mainly coz I feel like I've done about 20 years of growing since I started uni), but hopefully I still find something to resonate with here. Plus, the style of it looks so pretty!

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    1. This is definitely one of those "gets it" films, no doubt. And it looks SO damn pretty throughout. I hope you enjoy it!

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  11. I'm a bit iffy on this film, but I definitely want to check it out. It looks like it could go either way, which is intriguing.

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    1. Yeah, definitely a love or hate one right here. I say if you're a fan of Sofia's films, then you're well on your way to liking this one.

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  12. I was half sold by Autumn Durald's cinematography alone in the trailer. So glad Gia gave these characters the breathing room they needed and pulled off such a hauntingly gorgeous flick. I've been singing that main Blood Orange song in my head continuously since I left the theater.

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    1. Such a great track. The score was incredible and yes, Durald's cinematography was a sensation. You know, one day we're going to run into each other at an LA theater and not even know it. Ha.

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