In “Palo Alto,” the ‘good’ kids smoke pot, have affairs with the soccer coach, and get arrested for hit and runs. The ‘bad’ ones, twisted by hard drugs and disturbing sexual experiences, all before the age of 15, teeter on the brink of pathology.
Based on James Franco’s collection of short stories by the same name, the film was adapted by Gia Coppola, the 27-year-old granddaughter of Francis Ford Coppola and niece of Sofia Coppola. In a new essay from the tie-in edition of Palo Alto: Stories (Scribner), Franco writes that while the stories are fictional, they are based on his childhood experiences in the iconic California suburb. As he grew up, the culture of overachievement at nearby Stanford didn’t rub off on him. He recalls, “Yeah, I got arrested. A lot. At the time I thought I was the unluckiest kid in the world, but now I see that all the trouble led me into the arms of art.”
The sensibility that art is born of pain and emptiness pervades every frame of the movie. “Palo Alto” shows teen angst at its most dismal. Much of the action takes place at night, with the familiar drunken fights and hookups playing out in dim houses, lonely streets, and even the local cemetery. While the shadows bring danger, the bleakness of daytime may be even more disturbing. At the wild parties or in the zooming cars, there’s at least a sense that something might happen, even if it’s something horrible. But when day breaks and the kids slump through their parents’ ritzy homes and school corridors, a dull haze sets in. Maybe it’s the fact that they’re still high (you could count the sober scenes on one hand), but without the self-imposed drama, there’s very little life in these young lives.
The leads, teens Teddy (Jack Kilmer, son of Val) and April (Emma Roberts, niece of Julia) have at least vague impulses toward something more meaningful. Teddy has an artistic bent and likes to draw. He paints skillful portraits of the elderly charges at the nursing home where he performs community service for a drunk driving incident, and shows the patients genuine care. His previous stint at a children’s library revealed a pull toward literature—that is, before he was dismissed because his friend drew genitalia on the storybook characters. Teddy’s crush, April, also possesses a certain gentleness, though beyond chain-smoking and soccer, it isn’t clear what interests her.
The young actors in the film are talented, but most of their skill is spent on pouts, scowls, or deadened stares. All that reckless anger is convincing, particularly when coming from Nat Wolff, who plays Teddy’s best friend, Fred. Wolff can flip on a dime from fits of screaming to mad-hatter cackling, though there is never any joy in the laughter. One snapshot of Wolff and Kilmer in a collection of set photos in Franco’s book shows the two smiling easily together—it’s a refreshing contrast to most of their moments on film.
“Palo Alto” is a teenager’s world; the adult actors function primarily either as nagging voices, a la the indecipherable “wah-wah” of Peanuts, or as peripheral star power. Val Kilmer has less than five minutes on screen as April’s doped-up step-dad, and Chris Messina, playing Fred’s equally doped-up father, appears in a single scene—though admittedly it’s a good one. Franco himself has the most significant adult role and is believable as a manipulative coach who clings to his glory days by flirting with his young players. In Franco’s new essay, he notes that “I felt uncomfortable embodying this evil character, especially when my allegiances were with the teenagers, but I also wanted to do everything I could to support the movie.”
It may be fitting that the director and main actors are Hollywood legacies. The characters’ jaded, old-before-their-time attitudes smack of child stars exposed to too much, too soon. But even in the hard world of show business, there are moments of innocent exuberance and excitement. Franco writes about Coppola’s ability to portray that split between dark and light. Before approaching her about the film, Franco went to a small show of her photography: “The photos had a sensibility that echoed what I was trying to do with my book. The perspective was a way of looking at teenagers through the prism of the fantastic: the cool but vibrant lens that Gia shares with her aunt Sophia, a way of looking at the mundane world of youth, giving that pedestrian existence the sparkle of dreams.”
It’s a fine sentiment that you can feel the movie grasping to capture. But while Franco and Coppola have nailed the mundane, the sparkle remains elusive. Even the kids recognize each other’s apathy. When Teddy accuses April of not caring about anything, she replies, “I do care…I care too much. But it doesn’t work.” The same might be said of “Palo Alto.”
Emily Turner is an editor at Island Press, where she acquires books on food, health, and sustainability. She has also worked at NYU Press and Academy Chicago Publishers. She earned a BA in English literature from the University of Virginia and is pursuing a MA in Writing from Johns Hopkins University. She lives in Los Angeles, CA.