Palo AltoReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 04/30/14 20:36:15
SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2014: That James Franco always seems to have more ambition than one would think should have stopped surprising me a few of his less mainstream projects ago, but it hasn't. It should no longer shock to see another member of the Coppola clan making movies, either, but there seems to be a near-inexhaustible supply. So we probably shouldn't raise our eyebrows at Gia Coppola making a movie from Franco's "Palo Alto Stories" collection - although if you want to resent that it turned out pretty good, I imagine people will understand.So what's going on in Palo Alto? Well, Teddy (Jack Kilmer) has a crush on April (Emma Roberts) that seems to be reciprocated at least a little. The thing is, Teddy hangs out with Fred (Nat Wolff), and while he doesn't need Fred's help to get in trouble as when he's involved in a fender-bender that gets him a hundred hours of community service, Fred certainly facilitates it. April, meanwhile, is babysitting for her soccer coach (Franco), whom the other girls say has designs on her besides making her the team's striker.
There are a fair number of second- and third-generation Hollywood folks in this movie: Gia is the granddaughter of Francis Ford Coppola, while Jack Kilmer's father Val has a part as April's stepfather. And yet, despite their being relatively new to this, it might be the veteran of the legacies, Emma Roberts, who is the biggest surprise: This is probably the meatiest role she's had in a career that stretches back to when she was ten, but she plays it effervescently, easily charismatic enough to deflect other characters' cynicism and come off as down-to-earth despite being the prettiest girl in a competitive environment, but she's also good enough to impress with April's insecurities and implosions without coming across as simply neurotic. It's the sort of performance good enough to have me asking "who is that?" throughout the movie so that I could make a note for later only to be surprised by a name I'd seen associated with lesser parts.
She's got nice chemistry with Jack Kilmer, who isn't exactly bad himself. He's got one of the quietest parts, although he's careful that Teddy never feels laid-back, and that his being sort of inward-facing much of the time isn't mistaken for introversion. There's nothing introverted about Nat Wolff's Fred, though, to the point where one might think he's overdoing things in portraying the kid as a complete jerk. The flip side, though, is that a teenager deciding he's not going to care what people think of him might just act this way consciously, and there is something deliberate in the way these boys start moving in those directions (there's a nifty little scene early on where April's simple "I try to be good" might just be enough to at least slow Teddy's heading for trouble down). Speaking of guys heading in the wrong direction, James Franco is invisibly great as Mr. B; he gives the character personality that doesn't seem like a cover for being potentially predatory, so it's not hard to see how April can wind up in a bad situation.
Franco grew up in Palo Alto, so it's kind of interesting that it winds up an almost aggressively genetic setting in this movie, all roads with nothing but sidewalks and more roads next to them, houses that aren't particularly striking, and a soccer field that neither feels weird open not like a green oasis in the middle of town. I've never been there, so I can't say whether Coppola and her crew are saying that what's going on with the kids is universal or whether this personality-free place drags them down, but it's an interesting choice. It keeps the focus squarely on the characters, and sometimes that is meant quite literally: While Gia Coppola and cinematographer Autumn Durald are as fond of shots that say "look at this, it's beautiful, even if horribly so!" as any of Gia's relatives, it almost always served to highlight a character's expression or body language rather than architecture, fashion, or some other sort of production design.
She seems to have inherited "good filmmaker" genes and learned what works in other ways, too. For a film adapted from a collection of short stories, Palo Alto feels remarkably cohesive; April's and Teddy's narratives never feel like separate things forced to awkwardly intersect, and she has good instincts for when other characters should be used as fellow human beings whose own stories share common chapters with the guys we see the most and when they should be unpredictable outside forces. The basic atmosphere is right, too: Never foolishly optimistic or particularly cynical, but more inclined to look at teenagers and see potential than emptiness.That last bit is probably the most important trait that a movie about teenagers can have, more than style, intricacy, or the pedigree of many of the people involved Coppola, Franco, and company deliver a nice story of kids trying to be good, and they manage to do pretty well themselves.
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