Palo Alto (2014) – Review

Directed by Gia Coppola
Written by Gia Coppola from James Franco
Starring Emma Roberts, Jack Kilmer, Nat Wolff, Zoe Levin

Having been doing the festival circuit for the best part of a year, Gia Coppola’s adaptation of James Franco’s short story about the the inhabitants of the city of Palo Alto finally gets a limited release. You’ll be hard pressed to find it, however, which is something of a shame, as this is not half bad. Not great, admittedly, but nonetheless, still worth your attention, if only for a little while.
The lives of teenagers struggling with the obstacles of reaching adulthood are familiar themes for the cinema, and if we’re honest, these kids are not that far removed from what you may have seen many times already. When the hormones start to kick in and there is the slightest whiff of independence, well, all hell is bound to break loose, which sometimes involves the antics witnessed in Franco’s story here. Is he particularly on the mark, in touch with the kids, down with the trumpets? Well, yes, but it’s not really that tricky a subject to get your head around. These kids, in some cases at least, are extreme examples, so while it should be applauded for being well realised in some quarters, it gains less points for originality.
Jostling for most screen time and winning is Emma (son of Eric, niece of Julia) Roberts. Her diminutive frame and schoolgirl looks fit the role of April nicely, a young girl on the cusp of her sexual awakening, surrounded by more experienced peers, which makes her sometimes awkward and a little difficult to approach with any degree of confidience at parties. If you’ve seen Roberts in American Horror Story, you might find this performance even more impressive, given her wild nature in that television series. Smitten by a young potential beau, Teddy (Jack Kilmer) to begin with, who in turn is led around somewhat by the nose by his close friend Fred (Nat Wolff), she is sweet and innocent, spending her free time either bouncing up and down on her bed and performing solely for the entertainment of herself and her mirror or babysitting for the only other potential love interest, her school soccer coach, Mr B (Franco).
Heralded in some quarters as one of the most realistic depictions of the life of this generations’ American teens, there are some things represented here that will come as no surprise. Other things, however, are a little more unbelievable, even if you’re an out of touch crusty father of three like myself. Young men will attempt to swagger and show the bravado usually witnessed only in superheroes and Ian Fleming novels, and the girls will do things they really shouldn’t in order to get the boys to like them. Youth, in short, is brimming with naivety, dressed in fancy pants and sports a winning smile.
The performances are all excellent, it must be said. Roberts turn as April is very well realised especially, displaying a demure coquettishness that is hard to achieve in one so apparently young. Jack Kilmer’s Teddy also is very impressive, with a character arc maybe more complete than most characters presented to us here. His struggle to maintain what is a good soul in light of peer pressure is very convincing, particularly when around April, to whom he holds special feelings for.
Nat Wollf and Zoe Devlin both provide very able support, displaying reckless, misunderstood abandonment and their own cries for help. Completing the set of main players are Franco himself as the teacher that should really know better and Val Kilmer, the stoner stepfather to Roberts’ April.
The story is a simple one, with nothing more important of note taking place than the voyeuristic window on the frankly ordinary lives we witness. Directed with aplomb, the film enjoys its independent feature status and Coppola films it in just that fashion, often with languid overlong filtered shots of furrowed teenage brows, struggling to come to terms with their lot.
Altogether, a simple but effective piece from Coppola and Franco who both deserve credit for a project well realised from Franco’s original source material. Rated R in American cinemas, this may be a little harsh, as there is really little to warrant anything more than we would expect from a 15 rating in the UK.
As I mentioned, this is well worth a viewing if you get the chance, but as for repeated watches, this doesn’t really have that much to offer, so once will probably be enough.

 

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