Massachusetts Daily Collegian

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A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Nostalgia and angst abound in ‘Palo Alto’


(Tribeca Films)
(Courtesy of Tribeca Films)

Two boys sit in a car. Drinks and joints in hand, they dim the headlights in a remote parking lot. A conversation about King Arthur rambles on, and then the driver slams the gas and the car smashes into a wall, crumpling its hood and billowing steam into the night. After the title card, the passenger mutely mops the blood from his forehead as the driver hollers in ecstasy.

“Palo Alto,” the debut effort of director Gia Coppola, knows it’s a master of character development from its first shot. We know that the driver is a fearless hooligan, while the passenger straddles a line between childhood innocence and teenage delinquency. An excellent first film from Coppola, “Palo Alto” highlights the dangers of living too lightly and takes us on a nostalgic journey through the untamed wild known as high school.

Coppola, niece of director Sofia Coppola, adapted her screenplay from James Franco’s “Palo Alto,” a collection of short stories that draw from his childhood. The film debuted over the summer and raked in a little under a million in revenue.

Emma Roberts stars as April, a high school senior on the cusp of an illicit relationship with her soccer coach (James Franco). In her opening shot, April sneaks a cigarette during soccer practice before she hisses out a sigh and flicks it aside, as if participating were an ordeal. Her eyes exude both profound pathos and indifference.

Jack Kilmer delivers a wonderful debut as Teddy, April’s counterpart. Teddy flirts with danger at every turn. For most of the film he oscillates between delinquent and golden boy, and his journey mirrors April’s as both teenagers see how far their morals can sink before they derail their lives.

Without direction from teachers or structure from parents, April and Teddy fall victim to wandering imaginations and reckless boredom. A perpetual phone call consumes April’s mother, while her stepfather (an underused Val Kilmer) smokes weed from dawn ‘til dusk. In rebellion, April pursues her soccer coach. Meanwhile, Teddy nixes each opportunity at redemption as he drives drunk and curses at cops.

Jack Kilmer steals the show. His portrayal of Teddy, ostensibly an  early 90s stoner, delves deep into the teenager’s soul and brings forth an anti-hero you can root for. Kilmer’s shy expressions suggest a boy whose ambivalence towards change traps him in routine, his spirit torn between ambition and angst.

Nat Wolff stars in a supporting role as Fred, a completely irredeemable bully who charms his way out of trouble. Some of his lines will turn your stomach. He targets everyone’s insecurities to sculpt a role of dominance, and as he self-destructs, he ruins many opportunities for Teddy’s reformation.

Fred’s recklessness, at first the root of Teddy’s missteps and then the catalyst for his awakening, could’ve been handled much better. Coppola’s screenplay turns it into an obvious plot device by the film’s midpoint. Consequently, it surrenders all plausibility.

At one point, Teddy angrily asks Fred why he has to try to act so recklessly all the time. I found myself asking the same thing.

Coppola allows style to trump substance, an error her aunt often suffers from. Sofia Coppola’s landmark “Lost in Translation” perfected the introspective indie blueprint, a precedent she failed to uphold with efforts like “Marie Antoinette” and “Somewhere.” Gia Coppola’s debut resembles “Lost in Translation,” but falls just short of its transcendence.

A wandering narrative hampers its excellent performances and gorgeous cinematography, courtesy of Autumn Durald. There are misplaced scenes abound in “Palo Alto.” Teddy and Fred’s father share a moment that, while intriguing for character development, opens a door that the narrative doesn’t close. Instead, its unnecessarily detracts from the narrative’s intrigue.

Coppola makes up for these shortcomings with her artful depiction of April’s affair with her soccer coach. Franco, excellent in his small role, portrays the coach as an obvious charmer who picks up on April’s crush. How he proceeds will make you squirm. Coppola handles each shot delicately and focuses on April with protracted close-ups that illustrate her gradual realization of the affair’s gravity.

A beautiful score from Devonté Hynes and Robert Schwartzman buoys the film’s solid direction and moving performances.  It’s a mellower cousin of the propulsive electro score of “Drive.” Kilmer also contributes a ruminative, lo-fi instrumental that compliments the film’s tone wonderfully.

As you exit the theater, it’s the works of the actors that’ll stick with you longest. Roberts headlines a strong cast with her fantastic performance, while Kilmer shines in his inaugural role. Uneven narrative aside, “Palo Alto” is an entrancing vehicle to a simpler time and a haunting tale of young adults left to their own devices.

Alex Frail can be reached at [email protected].

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