Teenage dream – Palo Alto review (Sydney Film Festival)

Palo Alto

By Simon Miraudo
June 12, 2014

Much wailing and gnashing of teeth awaits any film adaptation of a beloved novel, but what welcomes the cinematic retelling of a despised one? James Franco’s unintentionally-LOL-worthy collection of short stories, Palo Alto, has been condensed, refined, and infinitely bettered by writer-director Gia Coppola, who, as you can imagine from her stock, is more than capable of sorting the wheat from Franco’s chaff.

The book – mostly faint in my memory, besides the particularly embarrassing quotes I jotted down at the time (“she had become a woman that day, but she would always have her scars”) and its totally Franconian author’s photo – follows a collection of troubled teenagers in the Californian city of Palo Alto. Coppola does away with most of the text’s first half, focusing mostly on the parallel tales of the virginal April (Emma Roberts) and troublemakers Teddy (Jack Kilmer) and Fred (Nat Wolff). If you’re wondering if Franco is annoyed by the distillation of his tome, he pops up here as April’s inappropriate soccer coach Mr. B, and his infamous half-smirk (perpetually suggesting some cosmic joke is being played on the rest of us) never wavers. Yep, Franco’s doing just fine.

Palo Alto

As April navigates a treacherous, lecherous flirtation with her teacher, Teddy – nursing a crush on April and under the dangerous influence of the unpredictable Fred – slowly self-destructs. Around them, adults played by Val Kilmer, Don Novello, Colleen Camp, and Chris Messina offer their terrible advice, making everything so much worse. Occasionally we get to glimpse little vignettes of teenage life for those on the fringes, like that of the lonely, promiscuous, regularly abused Emily (Zoe Levin). It amounts to an especially Gus van Sant-y affair, building to flourishes of sudden violence in one storyline, and bewildering anti-climaxes in others. Ultimately though, Coppola’s tale of disaffected, wealthy Californian youth is far more successful than her aunt Sofia’s 2013 effort, The Bling Ring, and almost – but not quite – equaling the haunting heights of The Virgin Suicides.

Autumn Durald’s cinematography captures sun-scarred days and grainy nights. Some colour-grading inconsistencies could have been an intentional choice to make the movie seem woozy and unstuck in time (or, they could be the simple mistakes, reluctantly accepted, of indie filmmakers unable to indulge in reshoots). The look of the picture is complimented by Dev Hynes’ (of Blood Orange fame) chillwave soundscape.

Palo Alto

The excellent Roberts and young Kilmer (indeed, the son of Val) anchor the feature and make it a memorable addition to the disaffected teen canon. The unhinged Fred, however, is a poorly drawn relic from Franco’s novel; too close a copy of the subjects from Larry Clark’s Kids, which was released just as Franco was exiting high school himself, and clearly remained an influence. Gia Coppola, all of 27 years old, wasn’t yet ten when that revolutionary flick first arrived in cinemas, or even alive when Fast Times at Ridgemont High (also referenced within Palo Alto) premiered in 1982. In her impressive screen debut, she honours those who have come before – even within her own family – without simply mimicking them. Franco’s book was the kind that unironically included lines like “he had pain in his eyes” because it sounds like the kind of line a thoughtful, introspective book should have. Coppola does away with most of the inner monologues and outer Francoisms, instead finding a truly valuable, familiar, original tale within. Who thought first-time directors could pull off such miracles?

3.5/5

Check out Simon Miraudo’s archive of reviews.

Palo Alto plays the Sydney Film Festival June 12 and 15, 2014.

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