Palo Alto is a child of Hollywood, that looks to capture the fleeting and undefined moment of adolescence.
This review was originally posted september 3. 2014, but is republished now, in conjunction with Bergen International Film Festival 2014.
The reason I say Palo Alto is a child of Hollywood is this; it’s the directorial debut of Gia Coppola – the granddaughter of Francis Ford Coppola and niece of Sofia Coppola – and pictures actor Jack Kilmer (son of Val Kilmer) and actress Emma Roberts (niece of Julia Roberts) in a movie based on a collection of short stories written by James Franco, who also plays a small part in the movie.
The Coppola name comes with certain expectations. Francis Ford Coppola is a full fledged master of cinema (Apocalypse Now, The Godfather) and Sofia Coppola has directed some of the best movies of the past two decades. Roman Coppola, brother of Sofia, has also made a name for himself in the world of cinema, as he has co-written two movies with Wes Anderson, and produced both Somewhere and The Bling Ring (He has also directed CQ and A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charlie Swan III). Gia Coppola is no exception to the family staple; Palo Alto is brilliant filmmaking.
We meet two young boys in the opening scene of the movie. They – Teddy (Jack Kilmer) and Fred (Nat Wolff) – sit drinking in a car at a dark and desolated parking lot in the Californian city from which the movie takes its name. They’re talking about who they would be in the olden times, peasant or royalty, and get in to an argument about the possibilities of either. Fred exclaims, “I am king!”, before he steps on the gas and smashes the car in to a brick wall. Palo Alto, shines upon us with bold pink letters from a black canvas, before we cut to the third and final main character, April (Emma Roberts). She’s at soccer practice with her friends, whom uses their breaks to look upon their coach (James Franco) and talk about how he’s keen on April.
From here on out, the movie flows like a leaf through a summer breeze. It’s delightfully simple, but still manages to induce a feeling of awe and wonder, as we follow the life of these young kids. Teddy gets pulled over for a DUI and gets sentenced to community service at a local library. Fred continues to wander aimlessly, while April explores her relationship with the soccer coach.
It’s a movie about these characters and their respective lives, and while I have yet to read Franco’s short stories, it proves that Gia Coppola has a unique talent when it comes to characters. While most of the credit should go to Jack Kilmer, Nat Wolff and Emma Roberts, it’s obvious that this is a movie about retrospect. She (Coppola) is looking back at adolescence. Not necessarily her own adolescence, but the concept. The exact moment between a carefree lifestyle and the oncoming challenges of adult life. Its a genre in and of itself, but whereas most mainstream movies handle it with naive shamefulness or extravagant glorification, Palo Alto simply is. It exists within its own world, where the camera simply observes without judgement or purpose.
It has the same sense of cinematic glow that we find in the work of Sofia Coppola. In many parts as a direct result of Gia’s direction, but it cannot be ignored that it’s based on the writings of James Franco. As I’ve stated above, I have yet to read Palo Alto, but I have read other stories written by Mr. Franco – among them, Bungalow 89. His style of narrative and character development is – in more ways than one – the literary equivalent of Sofia’s movies, and it fits perfect within the confines of this movie.
While simple – and some might say too much so – Palo Alto is equally a distraction, as it is a reflection of our own lives. For me (soon to turn 20) it captures a fleeting feeling I recognize in myself and many of my closest friends. Not because I relate to these three characters, but because I relate to the concept they exist within.