Gia Coppola's James Franco adaptation offers simplistic take on teenage life despite fine performances from young cast
This drifting tale of drifting middle-class teens is the filmmaking debut of Gia Coppola, granddaughter of Francis. Adapted from a short story collection by James Franco – who makes an appearance as a sleazy girls’ football coach – it follows highschoolers April (Emma Roberts), Teddy (Jack ‘son of Val’ Kilmer), Fred (Nat Wolff) and Emily (Zoe Levin) as they navigate school, parents, parties, love and sex, helped and hindered by copious amounts of drugs and alcohol.
The 27 year-old Coppola adheres closely to her Aunt Sofia’s mood-driven stylistic approach (set up a scene, play some hip, atmospheric music over the soundtrack; leave to simmer). But the result is directionless and emotionally lightweight, paling in comparison to Sofia’s own beguiling take on teen malaise, her 1999 debut The Virgin Suicides. In Palo Alto we are offered a simplistic and overly-familiar take on teenage existence, with all the adults portrayed as either clueless or subtly abusive, leaving the world-weary kids to struggle unaided with the harsh realities of life.
But where Coppola succeeds is in eliciting a brace of fine performances from her young cast, and it’s in the occasional arresting character details that her film finds its handful of redeeming, surprising moments. Both Roberts and Kilmer offer thoughtful depth, investing their introverted characters with believable complexity, while Levin makes the most of a disarming first line, which unfortunately ends up being the most interesting moment for her otherwise thinly-written character. Most compelling of all is Nat Wolff’s Fred, a gauche, tactless and thoroughly self-contradictory force of nature. He is a frustrating presence for most of the film, and Coppola commendably doesn’t try to solve him. His last few scenes are some of Palo Alto’s best, troubling in a way that feels real, unlike the greater part of the film.
Screening at Cineworld, Edinburgh, Thu 19 & Sun 22 Jun, as part of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.