Based on James Franco’s short story collection of the same name, Palo Alto borders on narrative and vignette as it follows various troubled teenagers living in the San Francisco Bay Area. Of these teens, April (Emma Roberts) is perhaps the least troublesome. That is until she begins an affair with her soccer coach Mr. B (Franco), which triggers an angsty downward spiral. Concurrently, Teddy (Jack Kilmer) is experiencing some troubles of his own after being arrested for a DWI. He is then put on probation and ordered to perform community service at a library. While the film focuses primarily on April and Teddy, there is also the uncontrollable Fred (Nat Wolff) that plays obtusely into Teddy’s darker temptations, acting as a foil for Teddy in a similar way that Mr. B frustrates April.
In a film that could easily bore the average viewer, its lead performances are too intriguing to pass up. Roberts has proven before that she can act as a moody teenager, but here she really stands out in an attractively pale portrayal that explores the anxious yearning for adulthood. It’s a particularly quiet performance that is complimentary to what Kilmer has to offer. His portrayal of Teddy is very subtle, as if the character is in a constant dream state, which reminded me a lot of Henry Hopper’s performance in Restless. Both Roberts and Kilmer offer sympathetic displays of what sorts of challenges overprivileged youth have to face. It’s kind of interesting since both performers come from acting families, a reality that probably provided some sort of insight for their characters.
Coppola goes for a more documentary approach to handling individual scenes, with a concentration on spectatorship and the everyday aesthetics of life. By initiating a slower pace than what’s common in most American films, Coppola uses the film’s duration as a means of observation. It’s a continuous flow of anthropologically viewing youth in the act of existence. Wielding the radiantly soft visual palette of cinematographer Autumn Durald and the new wave musical score of Devonté Hynes and Robert Schwartzman, Coppola makes a great first time effort at locating her voice as a filmmaker. While maybe a darker glimpse at adolescence, Coppola certainly approaches the material with honesty.
The characters that populate the film have their flaws placed on a pedestal throughout. They are corrupted like 1940s film villains, characterized by their chain smoking, alcoholism, and emotional deprivation. Only those aware of their shortcomings have a chance to “make a U-ey.” While both April and Teddy are in the position to do so, the film is more concerned with their emotional realizations and progressions up to that point. Their redemption is solely for our reflection.
In a final note, there is a scene in which Teddy imagines himself wearing Max’s costume from Where the Wild Things Are. After watching this film, I’d like to imagine that Palo Alto is where the wild things are. But since I’m referring to the teenage characters as the wild things, I think it’s safe to say that they are not limited to one city in central California.