Director: Gia Coppola
Cast: James Franco, Emma Roberts
Watch Palo Alto online in the UK: iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Rakuten TV / Google Play
Palo Alto is a film based on the novel by James Franco, starring James Franco as a teacher who gets to sleep with one of his students. If it sounds self-indulgent, it is, but it’s also more than that.
The movie is directed by Gia Coppola, the latest in the Copolla clan to pick up a camera. (With her arrival on screen, the family now have enough filmmakers to create their own version of the Von Trapp singers.) Like Franco, it would be all too easy to dismiss Gia, but Palo Alto cements them as voices worth listening to.
More importantly, though, it shines a spotlight on several other voices: rather than hog than spotlight, Coppola uses Franco’s novel as a platform to showcase a young, talented cast. The mult-stranded narrative delivers the usual array of coming-of-age cliches: there’s April (Emma Roberts), the virgin who fancies her soccer coach; Teddy (Jack Kilmer), the quiet one who fancies April; Emily (Zoe Levin), the one who fancies not being known as the class slut; and Fred (Nat Wolff), the troublemaker who fancies getting off with Emily, not to mention anything else that moves.
The performers, though, infuse each of these stereotypes with an unexpected depth. Levin is tragically needy as Emily, while Kilmer is endearingly insecure, happy to cover for Teddy, even as he knows he’s getting dragged down into a world of vandalism and community service. The exuberant Wolff nails himself to the fence between annoying and amusing, hyperactively stealing every scene before chomping on any bits of scenery left behind. But Roberts is the one who really engages; whether she’s smooching Franco or looking stroppy at soccer, she embodies the movie’s overwhelming sense of ennui even more than the directionless script.
There are unsubtle moments of superficial effort, from the electronic score to a scene that sees Teddy drive a car into a wall, just for the hell of it. But it’s in the quiet exchanges in between that the cast work best, elevating Franco’s short stories. In 1983, Francis Ford Coppola made The Outsiders. 16 years later, in 1999, Sofia Coppola made The Virgin Suicides. Released in 2014, Palo Alto may not quite hit the sweet 16, but this collage of Millennial youngsters frequently comes together to form something that could stand the test of time equally well.