Palo Alto

Movie Review #936


Internet and limited releases on May 9, 2014. Drama. This film is rated R for strong sexual content, drug and alcohol use, and pervasive language – all involving teens. Runs 100 minutes. An American production. Directed by Gia Coppola. Screenplay by Gia Coppola. Based on short stories by James Franco. Cast: Jack Kilmer, Emma Roberts, James Franco, Zoe Levin, Chris Messina, Margaret Qualley, and Keegan Allen.


By Alexander Diminiano

“Palo Alto” is a promising debut for writer-director Gia Coppola. It’s a wise, dark cautionary tale for the modern teenager, concerning a cast of adolescents who go to high school together in Palo Alto, CA. But in what we might perceive as conformist behavior (i.e. drugs, alcohol, sex, partying, slacking), they ironically isolate themselves from the community that they know so well.

Despite our own predilections, “Palo Alto” doesn’t affirm or refute that their behavior identifies them as “conformists.” But whatever the answer might be, the film does not criticize. It exposes–but does not exploit–these high schoolers’ poor decisions, but it also employs vagueness as an art. The one thing we never know about any of these teens is what motivates them to make such irrational decisions.

“Palo Alto” isn’t for everybody. Its favorable demographic is the 15- to 30-year-olds of this generation. For this sort, it’s extremely accessible. Gia Coppola’s directorial vision captures the quintessence of the modern-day teenager exceptionally; her script, based on James Franco’s short story collection Palo Alto Stories, is even more bona fide a portrait. The dialogue, the stories, and everything so authentically represents the mindset of a 2014 teenager. But it’s for this reason that I doubt the film will remain so relevant fifteen years from now. Only time will tell, but I don’t worry over how “Palo Alto” will fare come 2029, because it’s truly one of the finest films of 2014.

“Palo Alto” is a far more thought-provoking drama than it makes itself out to be in the first five minutes. Seeing two California guys driving down the road, discussing what roles they would play in an Ancient Egyptian society, makes the film seem like a simplistic stoner comedy–which it is anything but. It’s the “Dazed and Confused” of this generation, and it’s much more serious, for that matter. The movie’s atmosphere (much like “Lost in Translation”, from Gia’s aunt Sofia Coppola) is intoxicating. But it’s also brutally honest. The teens’ problems aren’t always the kinds we’d expect. The most effective story here is April’s (Emma Roberts). Roberts was likable as a homeless teenager in “We’re the Millers”, but her performance in “Palo Alto” is so much more resonant. She wants to belong, to d well in school, but she never knows how to accomplish either. Outside of school, she babysits for her soccer coach (James Franco), whom she is madly in love with. But nothing is really easy for her when he begins insisting that they see each other.

The drama Coppola has set up here is, by quality, incredible, and by ethos, very much credible. Coppola is a woman who understands the demographic she elucidates. She’s 27 years old behind the camera, and through her voice and vision of the script, it’s as if she only graduated high school five years ago. Read that comment over until it doesn’t sound degrading. It’s actually the highest praise I could possibly give an achievement like “Palo Alto”.


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