7 November 2014 | StevePulaski
A film of essences and details rather than long term significance
Gia Coppola's Palo Alto feels like a film of Larry Clark's set in a wealthier neighborhood that wants to show that the kind of crime and moral vacuousness that exist in certain impoverished, but the issue at hand is that the film doesn't seem to want to fully commit. While by no means mediocre or not worth seeing, Palo Alto finds itself in the quandary of not always finding a clear balance between its subjects, cycling back and forth, optimistically trying to devote equal time to each characters, but sort of getting lost in a sea of transitions. Even the ending, when it should be finding a way to tie these stories together, it only seems to try to rush and wrap them up in a clean manner without giving us much in the way of connective tissue.
Yet, with that being Palo Alto's biggest issue, I think I can go on happily. The film finds a new concept to explore other than teenage nihilism and debauchery, but the idea that just because teenagers or youths reside in a wealthy community doesn't mean they have lives as vividly-planned out as some may assume. Wealth doesn't equal direction, or even morality, is what I took from the film, and just because the idea of money at ones disposal is instilled at a young age, a clear pathway to success isn't. To build off of the famous saying "the grass isn't always greener on the other side," the grass explored in Palo Alto is the kind hyped to be beautiful because of new lawn-care application but winds up showing a few dry patches and weeds.
The film follows a gaggle of characters living in the wealthy, upper class community of Palo Alto, California, and centers on the day-to- day lives of listless and directionless high school kids. One of the characters we find is April (Emma Roberts), a shy virgin, who finds herself torn between her flirtatious soccer coach Mr. B (James Franco) and a deceptively deep stoner named Teddy (Jack Kilmer). Another soul is Emily (Zoe Levin), a sexually promiscuous girl of the same age, who has sex with both Teddy and his close friend Fred (Nat Wolff), an unpredictable time-bomb of a teenager. The film follows April's relationship with the two key men in her life along with Fred's descent into complete chaos and madness, as well as following numerous high school parties around the neighborhood.
The directress at hand, Gia Coppola, another member of the Coppola dynasty headlined by patriarch Francis Ford, actually shares a lot of the thematic similarities as her filmmaker aunt, Sofia Coppola. Sofia, for years, has made films with the overarching theme of wealth, fame, and alienation, focusing on characters, predominately female, growing up in extremely well-off parts of the world but having unfulfilled tendencies that money cannot buy. This is arguably related to her father being one of the most famous and renowned directors of his time, and a family that found ways to make news in Hollywood, one of the most known cities in the world. This kind of ubiquity and outside hunger for the next big thing from the family like prompted Sofia to frequently feel alone, which lead to films like Somewhere, Marie Antoinette, The Bling Ring, and Lost in Translation, all of which about an outsider's (or outsiders) desire to fit into society.
Gia feels like she's elaborating on this idea by focusing on several teenagers, already tumultuous characters, bombarded by hormones and stimuli they have no idea how to respond to or control, and looking for the basic routes of human gratification through alcohol, sex, or meaningless shindigs. But what occurs when the buzz wears off, the clothes are put back on, and the parties die or are raided? In Palo Alto, many conversations between teenagers and their peers occur as, at the end of the day, a teen's companions are those that can resonate with them the most because of circumstantial similarities.
Such is explored to considerable effect in the film, as characters ramble and converse quite frequently, discussing everything from trivial sexual tendencies of people to the random stupidity teenagers often debate over. While Palo Alto may be messy and often scattershot in its ideas and pacing, it definitely portrays its characters effectively, often devoting time to the inane questions teenagers ask each other and their basic desires for reassurances and empathy. Because these kids come from wealthy areas but have no direction by their parents, one can perhaps call this an outlaw story in suburbia, as these kids are not gridlocked, or even partly- committed, to any particular future, leaving them about as wayward as the cowboy on the trail.
Palo Alto is a film of essences and details rather than long term significance, but such is the teenage way. One will likely remember certain features and events of the film, but find difficultly in defining a theme or an overarching idea grandiose enough to justify itself in a larger sense of time. I applaud it for its portrayal of a demographic I never tire of seeing on screen, and for not only including but emphasizing the random questions teenagers find themselves asking each other ("what would you do if you got in a drunk driving accident?") and their own moronic tendencies, like mixing tequila and vodka because it felt good in the moment.
Starring: Emma Roberts, James Franco, Jack Kilmer, Nat Wolff, and Zoe Levin. Directed by: Gia Coppola.