REVIEW: Palo Alto

26 08 2014

Palo AltoAt a high school party indistinguishable from any other, Emma Roberts’ April has a conversation of unusual candor with Jack Kilmer’s Teddy.  Though she acts confidently in front of others, putting on airs to impress her peers and returning volleys from flirtatious soccer coach Mr. B (James Franco), she’s sheepish and restless.  He, on the other hand, is a misunderstood rebel drifting from disaster to disaster but somehow retains an impeccable sense of self-worth.

All the stars appear to be aligning for them to take their connection to the next level; however, a communication breakdown as well as a few stray glances lead to misinterpreted gestures.  This party at the beginning of “Palo Alto” sets April and Teddy on separate courses, each taking them increasingly further away from converting the potential energy from that evening into a kinetic spark.

They wander aimlessly towards dissatisfaction and frustration, but they do so with an eerie sense of knowledge that each further step is to their deteriment.  April and Teddy are not quite sure what they seek, though it seems impossible to attain.  This indescribable yet palpable disparity between reach and grasp that makes “Palo Alto” such a searing film about being lost in the mess that is high school.

Though it’s tempting to write off these feelings as “teen angst,” first-time director Gia Coppola treats April and Teddy’s self-estrangement as a very adult matter.  With such a seriousness, “Palo Alto” comes off as a film more in the mold of domestic drama “Little Children” than YA weepie “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.”  Coppola treats the longing glances of high school students with empathetic solidarity, not with derision or patronization.

Emma Roberts in Palo Alto

Remarkably, she even pulls this off while working within the same music video aesthetic popularized by her aunt, Sofia.  Characters are similarly framed and lit with comparable neon hues, yet little of the hollow hedonism present in a film like “The Bling Ring” rears its head here.  Perhaps the difference came about in Coppola’s editing room collaboration with Leo Scott, who provides a trance-like rhythm that lends “Palo Alto” the feel of a suburban “Spring Breakers.”

The real hero, though, is cinematographer Autumn Durald’s masterfully elegiac lensing.  Her camera often seems to be hovering like a ghost in group scenes, watching the characters from a remove that neither belittles them nor permits intimacy.  But when she’s capturing them privately, Durald prefers haunting shallow focus shots that eliminate any distractions in the background and force our attention at the pain that’s front and center.

These shots are most frequently employed on Kilmer and Roberts, though they are most effective when catching the latter in prolonged reverie.  Roberts has mostly been prized for her looks and lineage over her acting prowess, which has been minimized by derivative roles in both mainstream films (“Valentine’s Day,” “We’re the Millers“) and indies (“The Art of Getting By,” “It’s Kind of a Funny Story“).  In “Palo Alto,” though, Coppola and Durald offer an invitation to go behind the deceiving facade of her beauty and into a world of listless insecurity.

Unfortunately, James Franco’s source material is not a novel chronicling star-crossed April and Teddy; it is a series of short stories that provide a wider snapshot of modern high school life.  “Palo Alto,” as a film, maintains Franco’s breadth by taking the form of an ensemble drama.  Problem is, no other character has anywhere near the depths of emotion as the two aforementioned protagonists, so all their scenes feel like an unnecessary distraction.

The film arguably boasts a third lead in Nat Wolff’s Fred, a self-imploding reckless rebel who may well take down his friend Teddy with him.  Wolff is given a series of profanity-laced banalities to sputter out at lightning speed, which reduces him to the kind of stock character that April and Teddy so effortlessly defy.  The rest of the teens that populate “Palo Alto” are just as dreadful, speaking with put-on inflections to spew antiquated Valley Girl jargon.

While these characters do ultimately bring down the overall quality of the film, they thankfully do not manage to dilute the power of April and Teddy’s sections.  They very well could be the emblematic figures of adolescence in the social media generation.  Other films have taken effective stabs (“Easy A,” “21 Jump Street“), though most do so behind a wall of humor or irony.  “Palo Alto” gets what it’s like to be a teenager today, an understanding Gia Coppola conveys without any sugar coating.  The result is nothing short of stunning.  B+3stars


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4 responses

26 08 2014
CMrok93

This movie really surprised me. It felt like a very true, down-to-Earth and relatively gritty look at what life is like for most teens. Not just those from California. All over. Good review Marshall.

26 08 2014
ninvoid99

Correction, Sofia is Gia’s aunt.

26 08 2014
Marshall

Huh, didn’t realize that. I swore I had read somewhere they were sisters.

27 08 2014
Brittani

Great review! I have this saved in my Netflix queue, and it comes out early next month. I’m looking forward to it.

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