How does that age-old adage about talent go? Oh, yes. Jack of all trades master of none. “Palo Alto”, the film based on a selection of short stories that had been incorporated into a very slender book chronicling a series of episodes of bored and boring Silicon Valley teenagers by James Franco, becomes the subject for the film debut of yet another Coppola family member – Gia Coppola. Gia, grand-daughter of Francis Ford Coppola, however, displays and very ably represents, her famous family in her film directorial debut “Palo Alto” I just wish she had better source material to highlight her talent as a first time director.
Technically, the film is proficient with good camera work, and acting. Her style validates her famous family pedigree and penchant for delivering auteur written and directed films. Her cousin, Sofia’s second written and directed by feature credit in 2003’s “Lost in Translation”, produced four Academy Award nominations nabbing a Best Oscar statuette for Sofia for Best Original Screenplay Alas, that’s not going to happen with “Palo Alto”. But that’s not entirely Gia’s fault. True, directors have to bite the bullet and take the hit when the film doesn’t live up to the director’s expectation. In the case of “Palo Alto” which hits southern California screens sometime this May, at least it arrives at the beginning of the movie summer season. It’s available for teens and young adults to sample its somewhat predictable storyline that is supposed to resonate with them. Hey Dude, I don’t think so. There are over 100 million young people in the age demographic “Palo Alto” is targeting and I doubt this film will truly resonate, except in the fantasies of young people waiting to grow up and join the rest of us in the rat race of adulthood. If you thought your High School days were boring, wait to you see these paragons of the student body in action.
Coppola and Franco’s views on the “secret and desperate” lives of America’s adolescents are so preoccupied with booze, drugs and sex that their days really don’t leave much time for the serious business of merely living and growing up. I haven’t seen that many cigarettes fired up and that much alcohol consumed, or that many sexual liaisons since episodes of TV’s “Mad Men” burst on an unsuspecting America viewing public ten years ago.
The not so stellar stories excised from Franco’s book and cobbled together by Coppola, revolve around a shy, sensitive, and virginal April (Emma Roberts) a sometime baby sitter for her high school soccer coach Mr. B (creepily played by James Franco, who also produced the film). Teddy, a secret admirer of April (nicely played by new comer Jack Kilmer, son of Val Kilmer) is an introspective artist whose best friend and loose cannon sidekick Fred, played by Nat Wolff in an over-the-top effort reminiscent of the James Dean character in “Rebel Without a Cause”, together and separately all managed somehow to screw up their lives in a society that doesn’t understand their inner problems, which by the way, are never explored or explained. Emily (Zoe Levin), is a promiscuous high school loner who seeks validation through sexual encounters (shades of “Saturday Night Fever”). One high school party after another – without a parent in sight – bleeds into a series of reckless behaviors on the part of our intrepid upscale party-going teenagers until everything spins into chaos, without offering a single resolution or explanation.
When it comes to the casting of the roles, however, Gia Coppola and her casting director get high marks. They have peopled the screen with interesting actors. Roberts (a niece of Julia Roberts) is especially compelling, conflicted, moody, and vulnerable in the role of a teenager about to enter the world of adults and all that that implies. In reality Roberts is a youthful looking 23 year-old that the camera just loves.
Is the torch of older filmmakers and ageing movie audiences being passed to filmmakers of the 21st century like the Coppola’s and other emerging writers and directors? If it is, I sincerely hope that they come up with better quality stories to tell. As for films about teenagers yes, there is definitely a place for them in the commercial arena. Our hope is that the material be a little more compelling and grounded in reality.
In the case of “Palo Alto”, it remains to be seen if the summer movie genre – mainly made up of young girls – can raise the movie to the level of a summer box office winner. It’s a little dark, edgy, and fragmented, which are pluses for younger audiences. On the down side, at times it moves at a pace bordering on glacial. That’s not a good sign for America’s attention-challenged young viewers or for the box office receipts. Time will tell.