“Palo Alto”, the debut feature of the Gia Coppola, the next of the Coppola kin to ascend to the big screen, wears its name not as a nod to the wellspring of technology entrepreneurs that conjures the most familiarity with the area. Rather, the title only serves to denote a location, a geography in which life unfolds with regular quietude, routine, tumult, and adventure, particularly for Palo Alto’s youth. But Palo Alto is far from Anytown, USA, and the joys and pressures of these young adults protected by privilege are in many ways the dreams of many adolescents.
The recklessness of youth that moviegoers have been shown lately is frequently cradled by wealth. This allows for more narrative creativity—the world is these children’s oyster, even as it isolates them—and it also urges us to accept that the psychology of comfort translates into malaise with the right set of disaffected, uninspired teens. Often the premise is easy to accept for those of us outside the bubble because we want to accept it. Tipping the hierarchy of needs is an easy way to offer a poignant glimpse of coming-of-age anguish. More cigarettes are lifted in apathy than pencils lifted to scribble homework (though “Palo Alto” doesn’t completely ignore academics).
Most of the screen time is dedicated to Emma Roberts’s April, though Coppola is clear that the story does not center on her. She romps around with Teddy (Jack Kilmer), Fred (Nat Wolff), Shauna (Claudia Levy), Emily (Zoe Levin), and a slew of other peers as they navigate the day and night. Not a moment is wasted, and Coppola is similarly clear that the mundane filler amongst the passage of time is equally insightful. Our minds can wander and obsess, but our surroundings are rarely affected. Even when they are (as when Teddy and Fred cut down a tree “that’s probably been there since the Civil War”), the event still passes without much of a statement (when Teddy meets to apologize for a hit and run, the opposite driver glibly declares him an alcoholic while he stares at her breasts).
In films like these, there don’t seem to be many big questions asked—the spectacle of the internal battle between bad and evil occurring within impressionable minds is interesting apart from the chance that something totally unconventional may happen. With teens, however, bad and evil takes the form of independent versus conformity, and those wild scenarios which force us to choose which path to take. Here, Coppola, working from a story written by James Franco, still treats the interspersing shocks that punctuate the story relatively tamely, including a burgeoning instructor/pupil relationship between April and Mr. B (James Franco). She lets these things happen, in their regular course, preferring to observe rather than stylize. Admirably, she is asking, “What would happen?” rather than “How should this happen?”
The parental and adult figures are minimized, and even when they are shown Coppola never displays them beyond caricature. April’s parents come across particularly loud for how short they appear—she a half-heartedly doting mother whose neuroses are buried under cosmetic surgery, and he (her stepdad, played by Val Kilmer), a marijuana-loving, bathrobe-wearing figure of pretension who lazily occupies an office draped in post-it notes like a conspiracy theorist’s lair. The other parents we meet offer similar signs of maladjustment.
The script is praiseworthy for the accuracy of its vernacular and tone. These children speak nothings, peanut gallery comments about what is happening around them. They want to sound cool, knowledgeable, and mature, but to the audience their speech reins them in, as when Fred purports to understand that a classmate committed suicide because he had domineering Asian parents. Fred’s comments belie a lack of appreciation for the complexity of life, until he realizes his own propensity for havoc is a deep-seated, requiring a reckoning to overcome.
An anti-story in several respects, Coppola shows she is adept at serving witness to the everyday. She neither loves nor hates her characters, mistreats nor supports them. By the end, each child sets off his or her own direction, completing the film but not the journey.