Northern California. Shy class virgin April (Stone) starts an on-off relationship with her soccer coach Mr. B Franco. Artsy Teddy (Kilmer), who has a thing for April, undertakes community service. Live wire Fred (Nat Wolff) looks to seduce promiscuous Emily (Zoe Levin). Sex, drugs, ennui and chaos ensue.
Directed by a Coppola offspring and based on a James Franco short story collection, Palo Alto may sound too cool for high school in conception. But go with it. Debutante filmmaker Gia Coppola, granddaughter to Francis, niece to Sofia and Roman, cousin of Nic Cage and Jason Schwartzman, has fashioned a terrific, truthful portrait of teenage lives, delivered with a naturalness and compassion more seasoned directors can only dream of.
In essence Palo Alto is a succession of house parties, bedroom hangouts and aimless drives linked by listless interacting teens rather than anything approaching a plot. It doesn’t really have much more to say about teen life than the average John Hughes flick but, as it flits between humour and horror (a bottling comes out of nowhere), it doesn’t force its characters into stereotypes. They evolve and deepen over the 100 mins.
If Coppola’s lovely languid style, all lingering close ups on poignant details, mellow electronica and dream-like steadicam, is reminiscent of Aunt Sofia’s, Palo Alto has more texture and a tougher, scuzzier edge than say The Virgin Suicides or The Bling Ring. Instead Coppola’s teens feel closer to the worlds of Larry Clark and Harmony Korine but with a tenderness and generosity absent from either. Coppola revels in their mistakes and insecurities but doesn’t preach. She has as much feeling for “blowjob whore” Emily (Levin) and off the chain Fred (Wolff) as she does for sensitive types April (Roberts, niece of Julia) and Teddy (Kilmer, son of Val).
It doesn’t completely hang together and it feels a tad long in its longuers but Coppola makes you care drawing terrific performances from her young quartet. Wolff burns a hole in the screen, Levin as the school lay, Kilmer does a nice line in quiet introspection but Roberts is the standout, heartbreaking as she suggests longings and anxieties without over-hyping it. Much like the film itself.
It might not feel fresh but Palo Alto feels real, honest and moving. An impressive debut by an exciting new talent.