The directorial debut for Gia Coppola (niece of Sophia and grandchild of the great Francis Ford Coppola), Palo Alto follows the (mis)adventures of three Californian teens, April, Teddy and Fred, through a sea of weekend parties and the American High School routine. This film’s strength is the tantalising, beautifully accurate view of the teenage world Coppola has created.
Testosterone fuelled Fred (Nat Wolff) and his sidekick Teddy (Jack Kilmer) are those kinds of guys who like to wreck shit. The attention seeking, boundary-less duo who are looking for the next high land Teddy in troubled waters, asking him to think twice about where his actions take him. He’s crushing on April (Emma Roberts), but somehow Fred keeps getting in the way a bit and the timing never seems right.
April who is herself harbouring something for Teddy is also taken by her young, *single* and handsome soccer coach and go to advisor Mr B (James Franco) for whom she also babysits. Deciding what to act on and how sees April wandering through the journey from child to adult.
Roberts’ portrayal of wide-eyed, soft spoken April is reminiscent of Natalie Portman, if Portman was a bemused teen looking for love rather than an over-anxious ballerina. Not caught up with the other blonde-haired bimbos, April is that girl who exudes some kind of mysterious charm through not being afraid to be her own person. Naïve, but not stupid, she knows full well what she is getting herself into, and so is quite tentative about the whole thing, but that wistful teenage spirit takes over in the end, paving the way for new trouble and dilemmas that are obvious to both herself and the audience.
It seems as if the teens are left largely to fend for themselves with the presence of parents or any kind of responsible adult reduced to pot-smoking fathers, or the desperate housewives of California, too tied up in their own world to lend an ear to their kids, or even worse the desperately handsome soccer coach who can’t seem to find anyone his age let alone the one to hang around with. Coppola suggests that the adults are not much better, or better off than their juniors, just as lost in the world and in themselves.
There’s a cool bit of backstory as to the coming about of this film; Coppola, who had originally studied photography met Franco at a party where they struck up an email pow-wow. Coppola sent over some of her stills and Franco, taken with her view through the lens decided she would be the one to develop his collection of short stories into a film. And you can tell that Coppola comes from a photography based background, every frame in the film has the potential to be a beautifully telling still on its own.
Coppola’s world of soft backlighting and close ups of the characters give this world that dream-like feel that fuels the curious teenage spirit – full of hope and wonder; feeling invincible, incredible and yet so confused all at the same time. The indy genre is alive and well in Palo Alto with parties shown only in close-up making one keenly aware of the camera and a soundtrack featuring the notoriously bizarre Die Antwoord and a piece written and performed by Nat Wolff (Fred).
At times the plot seems to meander, and there are instances in which what happens next seems all too predictable but overall Gia Coppola’s first foray into features is both insightful and entertaining, a telling film of childhood fighting adulthood in picturesque frames.
Palo Alto was this year featured at Tribecca, and the centrepiece at the 2014 San Francisco International Film Festival, it screens for a limited season at ACMI, from June 2 – 22. For more information, head to the ACMI website.