Palo Alto has a lot of potential, with an authentic young cast shot through director Gia Coppola’s hazy imaginative lens, but seems more concerned with mood than plot development, although my high school years didn’t have much plot development either—horny boys asking for girls who were game and parties with hot tubs and balls. The film revolves around kids doing what kids do: school, party, sex, drunk, soccer practice.
Watching the film you can’t help but align the characters with kids you used to know. Crazy and destructive Fred (Nat Wolf), sensitive and good hearted Teddy (Jack Kilmer), confused and sensual April (Emma Roberts), and promiscuous Emily (Zoe Levin). There are scenes with a strong level of authenticity and others that are awkwardly placed and amateur. Emily is one of the stronger characters, although Levin isn’t given much good material, she swoons and melts after each sexual exchange, “where are you going? You leaving?”
Coppola was a photography student when James Franco (the film is based on his short story of the same name) met her through her mother Jacqui Getty, and he was all, do you want to direct one of my short stories? And she was all well I don’t know, I have never directed a movie before? As Franco suggested on Howard Stern, she’s a Coppola, of course she will do a good job!? Scenes were shot in Gia’s and the actor’s real homes and family members pitched in as actors and crew.
Amateur or not, none of these characters develop beyond the point of caring, and we only get split seconds of their personality. The Perks of Being a Wallflower succeeded because it had Charlie (Logan Lerman) as its heart and every aspect of his being was exposed. April and Teddy get this treatment to an extant, but the others lack a strong heartbeat. Fred’s crazy behind the wheel, cutting down trees, knife-clutching antics have no palpable underlying source. His pain comes off as staged and Wolf, who is an extremely accomplished actor, seems lost here.
Kilmer on the other hand radiates as Teddy and has the sensitivity and naturalism to pull off every scene (even during a daydreaming sequence when he is dressed as a rabbit: were good, leave the random artistic motifs for your MFA class). Daddy Kilmer makes a cameo as April’s stoned stepfather, but Jack’s subdued style seems to come from his British mother (Joanne Whalley), rather than his comedic/nutty professor father.
It’s not that I am opposed to a disjointed story (The Tree of Life flourishes due to fragmented events) but again fragmentation often leads to who cares? Teddy painting, Emily fucking, Fred drinking vase water, all dandy scenes with no real sentiment behind them. Jodi Foster was the core in Foxes, Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink, and Gordie in Stand By Me, no one substantial leads us towards anything tangible here. Coppola creates only supporting characters. At the end of the film everything is left up in the air, just as it began.
What did we learn today kids? If you want a movie to get made make sure you have the right last name.