Featuring: Emma Roberts, James Franco, Jack Kilmer, Nat Wolff, Zoe Levin, Claudia Levy, Chris Messina, Val Kilmer
Screenwriter/Director: Gia Coppola
Movie website: tribecafilm.com/tribecafilm/filmguide/palo-alto
Australian release date: Thursday, 14 August 2014
Verdict: A ho hum coming-of-age teen drama featuring some excellent performances that breathe life into the stereotype characters.
This teen coming-of-age drama is structured around the often painful and confusing struggle for self-understanding and direction of four Californian high school peers: April (Emma Roberts), Teddy (Jack Kilmer), Fred (Nat Wolff) and Emily (Zoe Levin). April has a crush on her soccer coach, Mr B (James Franco). Her baby-sitting for him brings them into regular personal – and potentially intimate – contact. Teetering on the edge of a dangerous and forbidden adult relationship, April is unavailable to would-be suitor and fellow artistic soul Teddy. Besides, he is on a rocky road and hardly a prime catch. A reckless drunken decision has landed him a stint of community service for a serious driving offence, and his cause is not helped by wild, contrarian and fiercely individualistic best friend Fred (Nat Wolff). While often obnoxious, Fred has a bad boy charm about him, which he works with manipulative expertise on the lonely and needy Emily, who tries to buy affection with sex.
Flicks of this ever-popular genre are generally pretty samey, and Palo Alto is no exception. The interest lies not so much in what happens – the shape of the narrative is inevitably predictable – as in how. Characters and the way they’re developed are key.
Unfortunately, there are too many clichés about this lot: the vulnerable virgin trying to be all grown up, laying herself open to sexploitation and heartbreak at the hands of an older chick-whisperer, the good kid being led astray by the charismatic bad boy rebel-without-a-cause, and the school bike who cain’t say no, cos – well, you can finish joining the dots. Doesn’t take a psych degree…
Chuck in a liberal measure of Dazed and Confused updated to the 21st century, which means more swear words (albeit deflated of charge through mainstream normalisation), and in place of the faintly naïvely celebratory rite-of-passage party-craziness a kinda joyless well-to-do American suburban teen hedonism, where parties have become one big heavy-lidded boozin’ druggin’ hook-up numb-fest devoid of humour or novelty, and you’ve got the picture. Yawn.
On the plus side, the four main roles are well-performed. April is the best developed and most complex of the characters, and Emma Roberts more than does her justice, sensitively and intelligently managing the transition from schoolgirl romantic fantasist to hurt but wiser young woman who finds power and dignity in valuing herself. Nat Wolff gives the off-the-rails Fred an unnerving combustibility, a sense that he’s balancing precariously on the edge of a dark, violent and destructive chaos. The others have less room to move in their mostly stock standard roles, but do a good job with the rather insubstantial material they have to work with. James Franco is irritating as the smarmy, self-consciously charming toolie/teacher. Perhaps he simply plays his character too well for comfort.
The film is beautifully shot. However, some of the symbolic use of imagery is ham-fisted and gratuitous. For example, a soft-focus but explicit lovemaking montage is followed by a shot of some pines soaring into the sky, then a cut to a vase of fresh-cut roses (pink, naturally). For Freud’s sake! Really? This is director Gia Coppola’s first feature, so missteps like this are forgivable, I suppose. Just.
While this is hardly an auspicious debut, there is promise in Palo Alto of better things to come. For now, though, hopefully this one will score well enough with the target demographic at the box office to give Gia a shot at a second feature. Until then, judgement reserved.
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