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.
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-