Okay, so I admit it. I have a major soft spot as far as moody teen dramas are concerned. But Palo Alto (Dir. Gia Coppola), based on the collection of short stories by James Franco, is more than that. Albeit dripping with teenage angst and featuring an equally delicious OST from Devonte Hynes, Palo Alto brilliantly channels already established notions of troubled teenagers (think of it as a love-child of Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without A Cause (1955) and Larry Clark’s Kids (1995)) as it portrays the turbulent lives of a group of adolescents in backwater California.
Coppola’s multi-strand narrative blurs the lines between four teenagers’ links to each other and their own personal lives; seamlessly interweaving the communal with the individual, and the impersonal with the personal. With four central characters, the plot circumnavigates between April (Emma Roberts), Teddy (Jack Kilmer), Fred (Nat Wolff) and Emily (Zoe Levin). April, characterised by her virginity and her position on her high school’s soccer team, has a crush on Teddy (unrequited, apparently), which is hindered by a burgeoning relationship with her team’s coach (James Franco). Meanwhile, Teddy works his way through his own issues, mainly with performing police mandated community service and coping with his best friend Fred’s escalating recklessness. Emily is factored into the narrative through gossip about her promiscuity and a dysfunctional sexual relationship with Fred. By the end of the film, April and Teddy come to terms with their feelings for one another; whilst Emily, fed up with being used for sexual gratification, ends things with Fred, who ultimately becomes entirely self destructive to the detriment of his relationships with the others.
What I really loved about this film was its sense of believability. This probably seems ridiculous, given the nature of its plot and the ease with which its high-school aged characters secure themselves alcohol and weed alongside a seeming lack of parental interjection; but the way the content is handled adds a veneer of credibility to these otherwise idyllic circumstances.
Teddy and Fred exhibit destructive behaviour in their neighbourhood; cutting down trees and drunk driving, the latter of which results in Teddy’s sentence of community service. Teenage rebellion is met with punishment without the need of resorting to melodrama or exaggeration, and this retribution is satisfying as it allows a sense of realism to permeate what would otherwise be a far-fetched story. The lack of parental supervision is handled in a similar way; with Fred’s father (Chris Messina) being revealed to be a pothead, much like his son, who seems entirely indifferent to his son’s behaviour and whereabouts. April’s mother (Jacqui Getty) is given a similar treatment, with any scenes of interaction between the pair coming across as stilted and awkward, reinforcing their mutual disinterest in each other’s lives, and offering a realistic explanation to the adolescents’ abilities to carry out their relative behaviours.
The acting is perfect on all fronts, from the protagonists’ portrayals of troubled teens to Franco’s creepiness as a soccer coach smitten with his students. Also, and now I don’t know about you, but to me there’s just something wonderful about a film set in a high-school situation where the actors cast int he roles of high-school students actually look like high-schoolers. As well as this; Palo Alto is visually stunning, and Gia Coppola has clearly inherited her aunt (Sofia Coppola)’s ability to create beautiful aesthetics and colour palettes within her work. A final high-point for me was the aforementioned OST, which was consistently immersive and intriguing whilst simultaneously managing to work alongside a soundtrack consisting of tracks by Blood Orange, Mac DeMarco, and Coconut Records, to name a few. Really, it’s just a brilliant film – even if you’re usually adverse to films concerned with unruly teens.
Honestly, as far as teen-angst-indie films go, this film has a firm place in the highest rankings of my favourites.