Just 25 when she wrote and directed “Palo Alto,” this newest member of the filmmaking famiglia has opted for safe material with her debut: this one’s solidly in the high-school angst genre.
While watching this humdrum movie I couldn’t help but wish she’d followed her grandfather’s route and chosen to cut her teeth on something less pretentious and meaningful—you know, like a down ‘n dirty horror picture. Perhaps such a project would summon up a little more oomph. (Pause here for fond memory of “Dementia 13,” directed by the youthful F.F.C. in 1963 at the behest of Roger Corman.)
“Palo Alto” is adapted from a book of short stories by the apparently inexhaustible James Franco, who also plays a supporting role. He appears in a handful of scenes as a sleepily lecherous soccer coach, whose focus of attention is a confused 16-year-old named April (Emma Roberts).
That’s not the center of the film, however; along with April’s issues, there’s also promiscuous Emily (Zoe Levin) and diffident Teddy (Jack Kilmer, son of Val Kilmer—who cameos, daffily), a lad with poor decision-making abilities. One of his worst decisions is hanging out with best friend Fred (Nat Wolff, also currently scoring in “The Fault in Our Stars”).
Fred is either a sociopath or someone so bored by high-school existence that he can’t help pushing situations, and people, to a dangerous ignition point.
The boredom is understandable. This is California ennui born of an overabundance of privilege and living space, captured in a manner that seems weirdly pedestrian.
If it weren’t for the excellence of Emma Roberts (another scion: daughter of Eric, niece of Julia), “Palo Alto” would have an eerie lack of distinguishing features. Roberts makes April an authentically vulnerable soul, a smart but slightly average teen who’d probably be able to share her emotional issues with her mother if mom could ever take the phone out of her ear.
Her awkward scenes with Franco (April’s also babysitting his kid) are well played and truthful. They will impress anybody who has never seen a film about teenagers before.
“Palo Alto” (2 stars)
A study of California teen angst, courtesy youthful new writer-director Gia Coppola (yes, she’s from that family). Not much distinguishes this catalog of high-school problems, save for the excellence of Emma Roberts. It’s based on a book of short stories by James Franco, who also plays a lecherous soccer coach.
Rating: R, for language, subject matter
Opening: Harvard Exit
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