Palo Alto (2013) — Image via

Palo Alto

Directed by Gia Coppola (2013)

Palo Alto is not the most stunningly original film that has ever been made. Its tale of the confusion, awkwardness, and general ennui of a group of upper-middle class white kids — girls who ask each other, “Do you think she’s pretty?”, boys who drink too much and throw up, etc. — has most definitely been done before. Yet despite the overfamiliarity of its themes, the film turns out to be worth seeing, a testament to the talents of first-time director Gia Coppola (granddaughter of Francis Ford) and her collaborators, including fellow Hollywood progeny Emma Roberts (daughter of Eric, niece of Julia) and Jack Kilmer (son of Val) in the two leading roles.

Palo Alto (2013) — Image via tribecafilm.comAdapted by Coppola from a set of short stories by actor James Franco, Palo Alto focuses the bulk of its attention on soccer player April (Roberts) and sensitive artsy type Teddy (Kilmer). Early on, April and Teddy arrive at a party clearly hoping to see each other, yet events pull them apart, and for most of the rest of the film, we follow them along separate paths. April, who is more contemplative than her boisterous friends, eventually attracts the creepy attentions of her soccer coach, Mr. B (Franco), who always seems to be wearing a syrupy smile. Meanwhile, Teddy tries to take life seriously but is led astray by his perpetually acting-out friend Fred (Nat Wolff). The main cast of characters is rounded out by Emily (Zoe Levin), a girl with no real friends who makes up for her loneliness by seeking attention from boys.

Palo Alto (2013) — Image via tribecafilm.comOne of the most striking things about Palo Alto is the fact that we never really come across an adult whose behavior is unimpeachably mature and responsible. Those who have proceeded beyond high school are, at best, insensitive clods and, at worst, exploitative criminals. This can partially be attributed to the fact that the film is told from the perspective of teenagers, for whom the hypocrisies and faults of adults are always exaggerated. Still, this aspect of the film, intentionally or not, comes across as a scathing critique of a decadent milieu of parents, teachers, and other adults who are so caught up in their own egos that they cannot even begin to function as role models of any healthy sort.

Palo Alto (2013) — Image via tribecafilm.comWithout any guidance from the adult world, the film’s teenage protagonists are largely left to figure things out for themselves. Watching them do so is sometimes painful and sometimes amusing, but thankfully, their struggles and accompanying transgressions are always presented with compassion and nuance, never mockery. And among the four lead actors, there isn’t a weak link; as the camera lingers on their faces during moments of reverie, they all succeed at giving expression to feelings their characters would never be able to articulate in words.

Cinematographer Autumn Durald has won much praise for her work on Palo Alto, and deservedly so. Her soft lighting and fluid camera movements lend the film a dreamlike quality that meshes well with the characters’ disorientation as they navigate their way through all the strangeness and uncertainty of their lives. Overall, by taking its characters’ actions seriously without sensationalizing or judging them, and by balancing general sympathy with a certain level of emotional distance, Palo Alto proves to be a successful entry in its genre and a promising debut for Coppola.

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Eric Prindle

administers Bad Entertainment. He is also an attorney who leads a team of legal marketing copywriters at FindLaw. He is not Eric Prindle, the mixed martial arts fighter.