Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Palo Alto Movie Review

To grow up in a filmmaking family and be constantly surrounded by people who make it their life’s work to tell stories through motion pictures must cause you to absorb the techniques so that you end up with intuition through osmosis. The patriarch Francis Ford Coppola went to film school to learn his trade and honed his skills while making some of the great classics of American cinema. His knowledge passed to his daughter Sofia, who has made some excellent films herself. Other members of the extended family have had success as actors, writers, and producers. Now comes Gia Coppola, granddaughter to Francis, and niece to Sofia, with her directorial debut Palo Alto, which she adapted from James Franco’s story series of the same name.


Franco’s book is a small compendium of vignettes about teenagers in southern California navigating the perilous waters of drugs, sex, alcohol, and occasional violence. Coppola’s adaptation wisely focuses on a small segment of the series while seeming to incorporate elements from others. The two principals Coppola has chosen to focus on are April and Teddy, two high school students who continually dance around the fact that they’re attracted to one another.

April, played by Emma Roberts, a talented young actress who easily could have gone the mainstream road to success, but who has chosen depth instead, is a starter on the soccer team and apple of the eye of her lecherous coach, Mr. B (played by Franco). She occasionally babysits his son, putting herself in a precarious and unprotected position with respect to the very irresponsible young man. Her friends shrewdly observe that he has the hots for her. Teddy is played by newcomer Jack Kilmer. He has boyishly awkward features including limbs that seem too long for his body, but Kilmer uses those physical features as part of the character, a kid who shelters his insecurities with substance abuse and wild antics like drunk driving. His best friend is Fred (Nat Wolff, very successfully plucked off his recent turn in the Tina Fey comedy Admission). Teddy has budding artistic talent and he’s a god kid, but he’s listless and easily drawn into poor choices with Fred’s help. They drink, smoke marijuana, and drink more. They do this at parties crowded with their peers, al doing the same. And then the really bad decisions begin: getting behind the wheel of a car cutting a tree down with a chainsaw; casual sexual encounters; putting court-ordered community service jobs in jeopardy.

The young Coppola has taken a lot of style notes from her aunt. If you didn’t know any better, you might think Palo Alto is an early effort from Sofia. The scenes are imbued with a brooding and dreamy sensation almost like it’s just beyond the bounds of reality. The languid and at times dazzling electronica soundtrack lends itself to this style. Moments of sure-handed direction and clear forward progress give way to meandering confusion. Scenes appear out of nowhere and fail to connect to the bigger picture. I suspect this is the result of an adaptation that attempts to incorporate too much from some of the other stories in Franco’s book. There were scenes where I sat with rapt attention, mesmerized by the skillful hand of a budding director, but then I was just as quickly torn from those feelings by actions and character developments that simply made no sense.

Though the two are very different both thematically and stylistically, I kept coming back to The Perks of Being a Wallflower, primarily because these are two films that get better than any I’ve seen, what American high school life can be like. Coppola captures that feeling of ennui in many teenagers’ lives and the sense of alienation. I wondered why just about every adult character in Palo Alto was horribly failing the children they’re supposed to connect with and aid – April’s distracted mother and bizarre stepfather (Val Kilmer); Coach B; a guidance counselor so focused on directing kids down one path that she can’t see what’s right in front of her; a parole officer who digs insults at a boy who clearly needs help – until I realized maybe that’s the point. Don’t most teenagers feel disconnected from the grownups around them, representative as they are of authority and establishment and having completely forgotten what it is to be seventeen. It must feel to these kids that their parents and teachers just aren’t there, even if they ostensibly are to an outside eye.

Thematically, Coppola and Franco are playing with the idea that teens are at a crossroads between innocence and adulthood. They have extra responsibilities like tackling homework on their own, or driving cars, but they haven’t yet learned how to truly be responsible. They have access to illegal substances, but are still too young to control themselves in the indulgence. They have active libidos and some, like Emily, who try to use sex with boys as a way of feeling validated and perhaps because she thinks that’s what she’s supposed to do as a teenage girl. But ultimately she is otherwise ignored and disrespected when she’s not crawling into bed with someone. And then at heart, they are still very young. Coppola presses that point a bit hard every now and then as when her camera focuses on all the little girl items decorating Emily’s room while she and Fred are disrobing on her bed.

And then there’s the pervasive sense throughout that the story is headed for terrible tragedy. It’s unjustly manipulative in that respect, building up the anticipation for something that never pays off. These are minor quibbles and they are growing pains that all ambitious directors experience in the early stages of their careers. At any rate, I think she got the ending right, which doesn’t conclude or wrap anything up. There’s no denouement, no ride into sunset, no heartfelt declaration of love (though there is a quietly sudden one) and final kiss before a fade to black. Instead, these kids’ live just go on. They’ve all changed in significant ways even if they’re not quite ready to face the world yet. But the haunting notes on which the movie ends said to me that there’s more to come that we might never understand because even teens themselves don’t know why they do things.

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