Sunday 15 February 2015

Palo Alto: A superior coming of age drama from Gia Coppola

(Contains mild spoilers)

Palo Alto
Director: Gia Coppola
Starring: Emma Roberts, James Franco, Jack Kilmer, Nat Wolff, Zoe Levin
Running time: 100mins

Gia Coppola (granddaughter of Francis and niece of Sofia) adapts a bunch of James Franco’s short stories into an evocative and stylish – if slight – teen drama packed with terrific performances and strong characters.

Of course the problem with making a film about teenagers being wayward, rebellious, and generally awful, is that it’s a furrow already ploughed pretty effectively. Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused did it. Larry Clark’s Kids did it. Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen did it. Hell, Rebel Without a Cause did it in 1955. But what really elevates Palo Alto (named after the affluent Californian city where the film is set) is the strength of its characters. Even at their most unsympathetic, you’re actually interested in these kids’ lives.

In many ways they aren’t a million miles away from the kind of archetypes presented in The Breakfast Club. April (Emma Roberts) is the bookish virgin, Teddy (Jack Kilmer) the directionless stoner. Then there’s Fred (Nat Wolff) the reckless bad-boy, and Emily (Zoe Levin) the promiscuous party girl. Thankfully, though, what threatens to be a parade of rich-kid clichés quickly becomes far more substantial in writer/director Coppola’s able hands. April – a perfect study in bewildered vulnerability from Roberts – commences an ill-advised affair with her soccer coach Mr. B (Franco), Teddy finds an outlet for his creativity and frustrations, Emily violently rebels against being treated like a piece of meat, and dreadful Fred – against all odds – ends up as the picture’s most sympathetic character.

This wouldn’t be a coming of age story without a parade of adult fuck-ups to make the kids look better by comparison. So as well as a sleazy soccer coach we get Val Kilmer as April’s weirdly controlling dad, taking it upon himself to not just read his daughter’s homework assignment but completely rewrite it, too. Still, he makes Fred’s old man – who seems about to make a pass at Teddy while stoned – look positively well adjusted by comparison. Blaming screwed-up adults for the myriad shortcomings of screwed-up kids is hardly a new sentiment either in movies or the wider world but it’s expressed rather more wittily and effectively here than I’ve seen in a while.

In fact the writing is strong all the way through – there’s a scene in which we are given a big hint about why Fred (in a great performance from Wolff) might be the way he is and it instantly transforms the way you see him in barely a few sentences. You realise that he isn’t bad; the poor little bastard is just utterly lost.

Rating: WWW

Palo Alto is available now on VOD and DVD


WWWW = Wonderful
WWW = Worthy
WW = Watchable
W = Woeful

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