Monday, May 19, 2014

Review: "Palo Alto" is a Compelling and Human Look Into Teen Angst

Emma Roberts
Remember back to those high school years when things seemed uncertain. What were the big questions of the day? Were they bogged down with a sense of detachment and aimlessness? In director Gia Coppola's debut Palo Alto, the film explores teen angst not as this grand glorified vision, but as something far more tangible and honest. People drink, curse, and crash cars with unexpected consequences. In a sense, what Coppola has made is a modern day Fast Times at Ridgemont High by way of the introspective nature of her Aunt Sofia. The results are a little raw, but nonetheless interesting.

Based on the short stories by co-star James Franco, Palo Alto follows the lives of teenagers in the titular California city as they try to pass time. There's April (Emma Roberts), whose relationship with her soccer coach (Franco) interferes with a budding romance with Teddy (Jack Kilmer). Add in Teddy's friend and magnet for trouble Fred (Nat Wolff) and that makes up the core of the story. While there is an additional expansion to the central cast, none are really as crucial as these four, whose lives intersect in unpleasant ways that aren't entirely clear. To even say that there is a plot is to give this film too much credit. It is a series of moments in which everyone tries to understand life without any defining zen moment.

The film does feel like a first feature effort in its experimental nature. There is a voice over technique that plays over car rides to fill in audience members on past conversations. It helps to create this meditative vibe that makes these moments feel crucial. While some are more severe than others, the film explores it with a sense of confusion and insecurity. Many characters exist solely to have fun only to have it ripped away. There isn't a real "tragedy" that amplifies the third act, but a small sense of enlightenment. Whether that is a good or bad thing is subjective. Even then, the voice over technique helps to make scenes flow organically and keeps the pace moving in fresh ways.

Of the cast, Roberts is the most compelling. Once again playing the shy, introspective type, she is given the meatiest role by choosing to explore a dark perverted world while maintaining innocence. While her co-stars deal with probation and cutting down park trees, she feels like the surrogate for Coppola's tone. We aren't told much besides the insignificant jokes, but they feel more open than any piece of exposition really can. These are teenagers and even if the film doesn't have much compelling otherwise, at least its cast is engrossing. The characters all start off as somewhat smarmy and uninteresting. Given time, the exploitation begins to unravel and the fascination grows into something bigger. Not "bigger" as in a triumphant goal, but an understanding of what aimlessness truly means. As a teenager, life is limiting and hormones are too overpowering. How you use it indicates your end game.

Along with a 100 minute run time, the film feels economic in its approach. It cuts back and forth from characters at opportune times, allowing neither main story to lose its muster. The music may be a little too indie and uninteresting for those over ambiance and meditative rock songs, but it works as an effective soundtrack when it comes to depicting sex as a gratifying, life changing moment. There are very few, if none, of the typical coming-of-age cliches present here and it is refreshing. It is also unapologetic in its depiction of teenagers, who drink and smoke almost constantly throughout the film. It isn't to make them seem cool, but to show the addictions and adulthood sneaking up on them, leaving behind a sense of purity that April isn't quite ready for. 

It is funny, exploitative, and introspective in ways that few films are likely to be. Coppola is a welcome addition to her already impressive family. The film may not have the immediacy of her relatives, but that is to apply unfair pressure. She continues the rich kid navel gaze trend of Sofia in ways that don't plagiarize, and that alone is refreshing. If anything, the film is an exciting chance to question where Coppola will go next. Will she go further into the minds of alienation and hormonal youth, or is there a bigger calling out there? Either way, Palo Alto is a great starting point full of addictive pondering with not a lot of answers.

Left to right: James Franco and Roberts
I will admit upfront that I have a certain fascination with the Coppola family, thus making any potential nepotism seem faint. Yes, having the kids of Roberts, Kilmer, and Coppola all present in this film may prove to be a little lazy, but that is to undersell the film. As someone who considers The Bling Ring an undervalued masterpiece of the fame-obsessed youth, I have a sort of bias going into this. Gia is no Sofia if one is to compare Palo Alto to The Virgin Suicides, but what we do have is something fresh and original. Maybe the film lacks the immediacy of her relatives, but Gia is clearly defining her style, and her way of showing important moments is something that I am curious to see applied to film further down the line.

Onto the main question: Is Palo Alto going to stand any chance at the Oscars? No. At best, the screenplay could for its fresh and inventive use of teenagers, but we still have hefty competition in the wakes. Also, speaking as I felt like The Spectacular Now ranks as the best coming-of-age film in the past few years, I think that this pales in comparison. Since that was overlooked, this is likely to. The only real chance that it has is if this film is a runaway success and gets Gia Coppola's name in the conversation. That is how Roman Coppola got his nomination for Best Original Screenplay. 

I do honestly believe that the Academy and the Coppolas have a signed deal that every one of their family members post-Francis Ford Coppola has to die with an Academy Award nomination to their name. It is that simple. With them being the royalty of film making, it makes sense that Gia Coppola, provided that she continues to tell interesting stories, will make this list one day. However, Palo Alto isn't likely to be that. For all of its addictive low key nature, it feels isolating to the older voters, who have likely graduated from this type of juvenile behavior years ago. Even then, they are likely to go for more pandering, positive films like The Perks of Being a Wallflower than this. 

There is a good chance that I will try and even consider Emma Roberts in the future. She may have been under the radar for most of her career, but here she shines. She is impressive more on an introverted level, but the vulnerability and movements all have a sense of realism to them. In fact, the entire cast has plenty of memorable scenes that elevate this to something beyond meandering. However, it is meandering in a great way, provided that watching teens live their pointless lives and find meaning in nothingness is appealing. The film succeeds in that way, which hopefully will be a present theme in Coppola's films from here on out.

Is Gia Coppola capable of getting an Oscar nomination at some point in her career? Is Palo Alto capable of becoming a cult classic? Does the supporting cast have an interesting career ahead of them?

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