Review: Palo Alto
PLOT: A few days in the lives of a disparate group of wealthy but discontent high schoolers in Palo Alto, California.
REVIEW: The agony, fury and general aimlessness of teenage life if explored to minimal effect in PALO ALTO, Gia Coppola’s adaptation of a collection of James Franco short stories about affluent young Californians. Truth be told, more agony and fury would be welcome in the film, which is mostly a series of detached, brooding scenes of high schoolers being dumb and/or careless. One certainly gets the impression that the movie’s drifting structure is exactly the point - that this is what it’s like, man, but to what purpose? The audience leaves knowing just as much about these foolish characters as they did when they entered.
Let’s see, there’s Teddy (Jack Kilmer), a sensitive kid with a destructive side that mostly comes out when he’s around Fred (Nat Wolff), a loud, sardonic jerk with a penchant for overwhelming people into not liking him. There’s April (Emma Roberts), who is torn between having a crush on Teddy and more adult feelings she gets when Mr. B (James Franco), her single-dad soccer coach, is flirting with her. There’s Emily (Zoe Levin), who sleeps with a plethora of guys in the vain hope someone will just like her; she’s of course labeled the school slut, not that she even really notices or cares. Then there are the random assortment of nameless stereotypes who surround them: mean girls, stoners, the usual.
PALO ALTO doesn’t gift these characters with a ton of interesting traits or subplots; Teddy, for all his frustrating immaturity, is hiding an artistic flair that he doesn’t necessarily want to follow. Fred is prone to strange existential notions and clearly has intelligence but wastes it with his insufferable attitude. April is languishing in a house with two completely disinterested parents (one of whom is played hilariously by a bloated, spaced-out Val Kilmer). Emily simply craves affection and will do anything to get it.
What do Coppola and Franco have to say about these young people? That they’re mixed up and burdened with the stupidity inherent in their age group? Who among us can’t relate; we’ve all been there. PALO ALTO has a realistic touch, the events that do play out often feel genuine, but there’s no insight to go along with the reality. Nor is there much entertainment value in watching these kids mope around, get into trouble and suffer minimal consequences, or have awkward conversations with the clueless adults in their lives. The film seems to strive for some of the same blunt matter-of-factness Larry Clark’s KIDS achieved almost 20 years ago, but that movie - for all its provocation and creepy sexualization of its subjects - had both a narrative flow and a brutal message to impart about its protagonists. PALO ALTO has neither; it’s like one of Bret Easton Ellis stories about unmotivated rich kids but without the sensationalism.
The talented cast can’t be faulted, even if they’re not given an amazing array of emotions to play with. Both Kilmer and Roberts bring just enough inner life to Teddy and April to make you give half a damn about them. The stand-out is Nat Wolff, whose Fred is the only character with any serious verve. Fred is a major league asshole, but the actor’s considerable charisma helps to make him a compelling presence.