Film Review: Palo Alto

Director Gia Coppola makes a very impressive debut.

Rich kids running amok would seem to be not only a favorite theme of Sofia Coppola but her niece, Gia, as well. In her startlingly assured directorial debut, she clearly shows possession of the family filmmaking gene with this story of a group of disaffected, privileged California teens who seemingly have everything, but nothing, really, that they want.

Based on that tireless polymath James Franco's short-story collection, Palo Alto mostly revolves around Teddy (Jack Kilmer) and April (Emma Roberts), who share an unspoken affection for each other but, given their toxic milieu of high-school cynicism, too much weed and alcohol, and chaotic parties, never seem able to connect. The too-easily-influenced Teddy is enmeshed in the psychotic antics of his best friend Fred (Nat Wolff), the school hunk who has his way with most of the girls, when not purposely ramming his car into a wall, driving it against freeway traffic, chopping down a venerable tree and just being an all-around plain dick. She, meanwhile, harbors a massive crush on her soccer coach Mr. B (Franco), for whom she babysits, and has her desire returned, but in a very creepy way.

Typically, these are not the most verbally expressive of characters, yet Coppola gets under their skins with empathy, pulling you in through her laser-sharp observation of their behavior and often profanely mordant speech, which is effectively cushioned by the sheer beauty of her mise-en-scène. The ’burbs have rarely looked better on film, and her keen eye evinces itself in tellingly detailed shots of the kids' individualized bedrooms, the too-quiet neighborhood streets which only seem to engender angst-y madness, and a particularly lovely misty evening when the boys decide to kill that hapless tree. Coppola has a good ear as well, lacing her movie with just the right moody music and songs.

There are some faintly bothersome plot holes—we never do see any repercussions from that tree murder—and there's a rather clumsily staged female soccer match, but these quibbles seem minor when one considers the breadth of the achievement here. Coppola provides us with enough insight via scenes with the kids' clueless and/or dissipated and rapacious ex-hippie parents—a ravaged Val Kilmer (the real-life father of Jack) as April's step-dad, and a closeted gay dad (Chris Messina) for Fred, who makes a stoned-out move on Teddy. Such essential elements are what was largely missing from Aunt Sofia's The Bling Ring, making it such infuriating piffle. Her niece possesses more humanity as well, and less easy, cool anomie, in her delicate delineation of Teddy and April's hesitant relationship, although a scene of a love-struck April, blissfully staring out of a car window, seems a direct lift from Marie Antoinette. Coppola stirs this simmering pubescent pot ever more furiously as things come to a head, with a real humdinger of an ending that boldly contains wistful romance as well as jolting terror, all of it mysteriously wrapped as if in a dream.

The director is confidently excellent with actors, and the entire cast—including a number of second-generation actors—performs with freshness and stirring verve. In his first film, Kilmer, with his tangled helmet of golden hair, evokes River Phoenix and has a similar authentically febrile sensitivity. The contrastingly dark Wolff has a bit of Robert De Niro's early, fascinating dash in Mean Streets, with just the right kind of dangerous charisma. Roberts (daughter of Eric, niece of Julia) showed sparks of talent even in the morass that was We're the Millers, and really gets to display her acting chops here. She delivers a highly identifiable, movingly fraught performance, containing an impressive range of child-woman emotions from giddy playfulness with Mr. B's precocious little boy to deep suffering as she realizes just how replaceable she is in this horn-dog's m.o.

Franco's acting is very quiet here, and effectively so: He's seriously seductive but in an underplayed way, making his sociopathic interactions all the more chilling. Zoe Levin is poignant as Fred's too-easy victim, the roles of April's bitchy clique of girlfriends are aptly filled, and Coppola seems to fully enjoy the giddy efforts of the oldsters here as well, from the aforementioned Kilmer's and Messina's woozy decadence, to April's too-lifted and electronic ciggie-puffing mom (Jacqui Getty), to Don Novello (“Saturday Night Live”’s immortal Father Guido Sarducci) as a ranting teacher, and dear reliable Colleen Camp, in a hilarious scene wherein Teddy must apologize to her for a hit-and-run episode that lands him in probation yet again.

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