Palo Alto Movie Review

Featuring: Emma Roberts, James Franco, Jack Kilmer, Nat Wolff, Zoe Levin, Claudia Levy, Chris Messina, Val Kilmer
Screenwriter/Director: Gia Coppola
Movie website:
Australian release date: Thursday, 14 August 2014

Reviewer: rolanstein
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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2 thoughts on “Palo Alto Movie Review”

  1. I really really liked this! Yes, the things that happen are pretty stock standard, but I thought he very clever and brave thing about this treatment of them is that they (the writer and filmmaker: Franco and Coppola respectively) don’t hold back in laying blame.

    The kids are overtly attempting to find their place in society, their sexuality, and their moral boundaries. A couple of times, Fred and Teddy have conversations that are hypotheticals about status and behaviour. (One of these foreshadows a later event.) April has a clear view of herself as a good girl.

    So, typical adolescent coming-of-age stuff made explicit in the script – but here’s the thing: all the adults are suspended in the same self-centred space, as though they have given up questioning, and have settled for self-gratification. At best they are loving but ineffectual (April’s mum), and at worst, criminally predatory (the teacher). In between, there are various examples of incompetence (Teddy’s mum, who has bought her young daughter high platform shoes) or nastiness (the welfare officer who deals with Teddy).

    Only the art teacher shows some subtlety in dealing with Fred.

    It was really hard to watch the behaviour depicted, particularly the drinking – and these teens smoked so much I wouldn’t have been surprised if they’d started speaking French!

    The sound track was great too, although it got a bit obviously doomy towards the end.

    Nope, rolanstein, I have to disagree: Coppola has made a great beginning with an expose of Californian culture while maintaining sympathy for her characters. Great cinema. Recommended.

  2. Good to hear from ya, Karen, but I gotta say – “great cinema”? An instance of today’s rampant overuse of hyperbole, surely?

    Take your point on the adults, but not sure why you mention that as a positive distinguishing feature. It’s hardly a new take, is it?

    I didn’t respond with anything more than an inner yawn to the teen smoking, drinking etc. As far as I’m concerned, this is typical teen behaviour and always has been – well, it was as far back as my teens, anyway, and the only difference now seems to be the numbness around it, c/w the fun of the forbidden and vaguely celebratory lust for altered states in earlier, more naive times. That, for me, is the distinguishing element of this flick…but hardly a unique observation on Coppola’s/Franko’s part.

    You know, I suspect our differing responses to this movie comes down to the subject matter. I’m tired of this sort of stuff, and want something really fresh and inventive out of a teen coming-of-ager. I didn’t find it here. For me, too much of it was a rehashing of the now tiresomely familiar.

    I do agree with your point that Coppola maintains sympathy for her characters. That’s a plus, but let’s see how she goes with her next outing – and I hope it’s more adventurous than this one so we can see what happens when she tests and stretches herself a little more.

    I notice more reviewers are in your camp than mine, which is fine. I am often off-side with the majority, perhaps due to somewhat idiosyncratic intolerances of various types. Excellent to have an opposing view to provide some balance (you’ve been away from the fray too long – welcome back!). Good to hear what other folk think once they’ve seen the film. One lives in hope of some reader response…


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