PALO ALTO B
USA (100 mi) 2013 d: Gia Coppola
Gia Coppola is the latest edition of the Coppola Film Factory, much like the exiled Makhmalbaf’s from Iran, currently living in Paris, or the infamous Barrymore family from the days of early Hollywood, all descended from cinema royalty. Gia is the daughter of Gian-Carlo Coppola (who died in a speedboating accident at the age of 22), the oldest of Francis Ford Coppola’s three children, which makes Francis her grandfather, while Sofia Coppola is her aunt. Stylewise, Gia graduated from Bard College with a fine arts degree in photography, where her moody visualization is much closer to Aunt Sofia, a mere 25-years old when it was shot, a year or two younger than Sofia when she shot her first feature, THE VIRGIN SUICIDES (1999), painting her own impressionistic portrait of rich, overly indulgent high school kids by adapting James Franco’s Palo Alto: Stories, a collection of 11 short stories taking place in his upscale Northern California hometown. Like Robert Altman adapting nine Raymond Carver short stories (and a poem) into the ensemble piece SHORT CUTS (1993), Coppola also blends several of the stories into a composite whole, mostly centered on four main characters. As Gia is herself a California child of privilege, it’s interesting to get her take on today’s youth, which is looking younger than ever, but still plagued by sex, social cliques, infatuations, getting stoned, drunken parties, and boredom. Parents are largely absent or unseen, while kids have their own cars, and marijuana is the drug of choice for both teens and parents alike. The casting is inspired, keeping it in an extended Hollywood movie family, where Emma Roberts (daughter of Eric, niece of Julia, and something of a stretch at age 23) plays April, a shy and sweet-natured girl caught up in the enveloping trouble surrounding her, reminiscent of Jamie Lee Curtis in HALLOWEEN (1978), though perhaps not as resilient, while Jack Kilmer, son of Val, who appears as April’s perpetually stoned stepfather in the film, is something of a revelation as Teddy, a stoner kid with artistic tendencies, looking very much the part of a River Phoenix reincarnation from a Gus van Sant film, like My Own Private Idaho (1991). April and Teddy are drawn to one another, but they’re teenagers that don’t know how to express it, so instead we get a series of longing looks from afar, where they instantly cover up any hurt feelings by getting involved in some other mischief.
The near plotless but largely entertaining film is a swirling choreography of kids making typical high school mistakes, where the most troubled kid is Teddy’s friend Fred (Natt Wolff), an obnoxious, overly aggressive jerk that spends most of his time putting everybody else down, making fun of the world around him, taking nothing seriously, getting high as often as he can, pretending he’s the life of the party, but in truth he’s the most hurt and alone. Challenging him for low self-esteem is Emily, Zoe Levin from Beneath the Harvest Sky (2013), the girl who will have sex with anyone, thinking it will fill the emotional abyss she has to live with every day. The delicacy she brings to the character is part of what makes this film matter, as we’ve seen all these kids before, perhaps in better movies, but their exquisite performances stand out in what is otherwise stereotypical territory. It’s hard to care about rich kids that don’t care about themselves, who abuse their time on earth, economically privileged children who have it all, but despite their advantages, they’d rather toss their lives away, where we’ve already seen the spoiled and wasted kids in Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring (2013) or Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers (2012, which actually stars James Franco, by the way), where we can’t help but think—why should I care? But then we get the painfully honest teen portrayals in The Spectacular Now (2013) or The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012), where it’s hard not to share in the heartbreak of adolescent growing pains. Coppola attempts to draw us into this disturbing teenage quagmire by reminding us how alienated kids are from themselves and one another, portraying them as collisions waiting to happen, where they have to continually pretend life doesn’t hurt, and nothing matters, while deep down they are wounded disaffected souls with no words to express their pain and anguish. While we’ve all been there, hopefully most of us survived intact, but this film is a painful reminder of a time in our lives when we often could barely tell the difference between right and wrong, where often impaired judgment was held together by a slender thread of common sense and luck. If one was not so fortunate, many adult lives have been ruined or destroyed by the regrettable actions of one’s youth. While we’re watching the rebellious antics of so many needlessly discarded teenagers, who are treated like so many disposable parts, it’s hard not to think of how they might end up.
Initially the focus is on April’s secret crush for Teddy, but Fred continually gets in the way with his annoying behavior, claiming Teddy as his best buddy, usually plying him with dope or alcohol or bad ideas, where the two are seen as drifting knuckleheads with an air of indifference about the consequences of having no boundaries to speak of. While Teddy would walk away from trouble under normal circumstances, exhibiting better sense, in Fred’s company he acts just as screwed up. One of the highlights of their young lives is attending raging, out of control parties with absent parents, where the kids are free to do anything they want with no restrictions. Coppola has a knack for creating a naturalistic setting, allowing her hand-held camera to wander in and out of rooms, shot by Autumn Cheyenne Durald, where it’s not unusual for characters to be seen puking in the bushes. Teddy draws April’s attention, eventually disappearing and wandering off with another girl, where he’s too blitzed to drive, but that doesn’t stop him from getting into a car accident, compounded by leaving the scene of the crime. With the police waiting for him by the time he gets home, he avoids worse punishment by involuntary community service in a sentence handed down by the court, where amusingly the dispassionate offscreen voice of the judge is unmistakably that of Francis Ford Coppola in full lecture mode. James Franco plays Mr. B, a high school soccer coach for a rather lackadaisical girl’s team, where instead of winning he keeps his eye on the young girls, veering into the uncomfortable territory where adults take advantage of the vulnerabilities of the young, where his persuasive charm couldn’t be more revolting as he clearly has a thing for teenage girls, yet April is the regular babysitter for his young son Michael (Micah Nelson), making her an easy target. It’s quite a mood swing to go from showing the obviously excited young kid something he’s not allowed to watch on TV, the legendary Phoebe Cates bathing suit sequence baring it all in FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH (1982), to Mr. B seducing April on the same couch. Her guilt afterwards is punishingly acute, as she has absolutely no one she can share her thoughts with, as her patronizing and overly complacent mother (played amusingly enough by the director’s own mother, Jacqui Getty) is too wrapped up in her own self-help mindset to know or care. The depiction of aimless and often confused teenagers is not the lurid sensationalism one has come to expect, but is instead a tender and often poetic introspection of the moods and anxieties that thrive within the teenage community. Consider this the director’s LOST IN TRANSLATION (2003) as she makes her way through the emotional minefields and marijuana haze of high school.