Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Movie Review: Palo Alto

Palo Alto
Directed by: Gia Coppola.
Written by: Gia Coppola based on the short stories by James Franco.
Starring: Emma Roberts (April), Jack Kilmer (Teddy), Nat Wolff  (Fred), James Franco (Mr. B), Zoe Levin (Emily), Olivia Crocicchia (Chrissy), Claudia Levy (Shauna), Val Kilmer (Stewart), Jacqui Getty (Jane), Colleen Camp (Sally Grossman), Emma Gretzky (Emma), Janet Jones Gretzky (Sherry), Chris Messina (Mitch), Talia Shire (Mrs. Ganem).

The teenagers in Palo Alto essentially do one stupid thing after another for almost the entire length of the movie. Yet, what is impressive about Gia Coppola’s directorial debut is how it doesn’t judge the characters – it simply presents them and because the movie has some great moments, I generally did come to care about these characters, who in other hands could well have viewed as psychopaths. Based on a series of short stories by James Franco, the teenagers in Palo Alto aren’t that far away from the characters in Larry Clark’s Kids – except they’re in California, not New York, and they all have more than enough money. Still, all they do is party, drink, do drugs and have sex. Their parents are either absent, oblivious or just as stoned as they are. The movie could well have been a “shocking expose” of kids gone wild like Kids or Catherine Hardwicke’s thirteen (2003) – but Coppola isn’t really interested in that. Her directorial style certainly owes a stylistic debt to her aunt Sofia (too much of one really, but you almost expect a first time filmmaker to lean on their influences a little too heavily). Like last year’s The Bling Ring from Sofia, the movie watches as the characters move through one mistake after another. The difference, I think, is that Gia feels more for her characters than Sofia does.

The movie opens with Teddy (Jack Kilmer, son of Val) and Fred (Nat Wolff) – two stoners hanging out in Fred’s car, talking bullshit, getting stoned, and already bored – until Fred guns the motor and crashes into a wall just a few feet in front of them. It’s a pattern that will get worse throughout the movie, as Fred’s actions become stupider, crueler and more dangerous – he’s a budding psychopath to be sure, and Teddy is such a weak willed follower, that he just goes along for the ride, getting himself into more and more trouble. Next we meet April (Emma Roberts) – seemingly the only virgin left at her high school. She and Teddy like each other, but are so quiet around each other, that they barely speak. She is also drawn to her soccer coach – Mr. B (Franco) – who she also babysits for. Teddy isn’t as shy when he’s approached at a party by Emily (Zoe Levin) – who repeats her normal pattern and blows him without thinking about it. Fred will soon swoop in on Emily, and take advantage of her in increasingly cruel ways. Mr. B, who seems so nice, is an even bigger monster – one that comes to April with a smile, and slowly, but surely, preys on her weaknesses in order to seduce her. He’s pathetic, so much so anyone more mature that April would probably see through him.

For the most part, no matter how stupid the decisions the characters make, they are fundamentally good kids. Roberts’ April is the central character – and the most sympathetic one. Roberts has been a promising actor for a number of years now, and this is her best work to date. Her most impressive moments are the quietest ones – including a couple of rather heartbreaking scenes – like when her stepfather, played by Val Kilmer, who “corrects” her paper, essentially by completely re-writing it (“It needed a lot of work, sweetie”) – and she cannot quite find the nerve to stand up for herself. It’s a pattern she will repeat later with Mr. B - she knows what she is doing is wrong, but cannot stand up for herself. She is quietly hurt when she finds out that after having a nice evening with Teddy, he let Emily blow her later at the same party. For his part, Jack Kilmer acquits himself nicely as Teddy – a quiet stoner who keeps getting himself into trouble, sometimes because of Fred, sometimes not, but cannot stop himself. He’s a somewhat talented artist – but never really commits to it. But he’s a fundamentally “good kid” – he just cannot help himself – and his mother (Janet Jones Gretzky) is too ineffective to help him. Zoe Levin’s Emily is a little too pat and predictable – the school slut, who really just lacks confidence, and will do anything to get boys to like her. The movie, wisely, leaves her most shocking actions off-screen, telling them in a voiceover by Fred. Out of the four main high school characters, Fred is the furthest gone – a mini-psycho, who has his world shattered near the end when he finally realizes how others see him. “I was just messing around” – he says after pushing Emily too far.

As a writer and director, Coppola shows genuine talent – enough to make me think she is more than capable of directing a great movie at some point in her career. This isn’t that film – it’s very good to be sure, but I sense that she`s still finding her style. Visually, the film is beautiful – and owes a debt to Sofia Coppola. But Gia seems more interested in her characters and their inner lives than Sofia has shown so far. A further refinement of her style is needed to make the next step. Still, this film represents one of the most promising debut films of the year so far. Gia Coppola is now the third generation of filmmakers they Coppola`s have producer – grandfather Francis Ford has a cameo as the voice of a judge, and aunt Sofia gets a shout-out in the end credits. Both of them have won Oscars, and produced several great films. If Gia Coppola continues on this path, I have no doubt she`s capable of joining them.

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