EIFF 2014 – Palo Alto
Is there a member of the Coppola family not blessed with talent? Gia Coppola makes her directorial debut in this adaptation of a James Franco novel following teenagers and the problems they face growing up in California.
There’s isn’t so much an overall story as there is a series of stories that are tangentally connected by the people featured, it’s a style that works well some of the time and not so well others. At times the connecting tissue between the stories isn’t as strong as it could be.
Mainly the film focuses on a young girl named April (Emma Roberts -Julia Roberts’ niece) who is shy and reserved, demonstrating a lack of ability to fit into many social situations. She harbours a crush for her friend Teddy (Jack Kilmer) as well as being attracted to the older soccer coach referred to as Mr B. (James Franco) whom she babysits for. Much of the film shows her inability to deal with her confused feelings as well as the pressure she feels as a young woman growing up and having to decide where her life is going to take her.
Her story is by far the most interesting in the film, Emma Roberts puts across April’s naivety really well and always seems like she’s on the verge of tears. There’s some nice little touches like showing her poor self image by curiously looking herself over in the mirror and reacting to the advances of an older man because that makes her feel attractive. Roberts puts more across in small glances than she does in her words which is just as well because her reserved nature makes her use very few.
Another interesting story is that of Teddy (Jack Kilmer -Val Kilmer’s son) who is often led astray by the rebellious Fred (Nat Wolff). The film makes it clear that Teddy is not a bad guy but just lacks confidence in speaking up for himself which gets him in no end of trouble such as crashing his car while driving drunk and having to do community service in a library and later an old folks home due to Fred’s meddling, both of which turns out to be enriching life experiences for him. They help to build his self confidence as well as confidence in his artistic skills. He has a massive crush on April -which she reciprocates- but neither have the self confidence to act on it. Jack Kilmer plays Teddy with a likeable vulnerability that helps make his character engaging.
Fred is the character that is put in to be hated, at least as far as I’m concerned. Every time that kid was on screen I wanted him to go away and I consistently wanted someone to stand up to him so that he would stop being such a corrupting influence on those around them. I felt especially sorry for Emily (Zoe Levin) who was massively mistreated by him with her being insecure and feeling like she can only find acceptance by offering sexual favours. Some work is done to give depth to Fred and give pseudo reasons why he might be doing what he does but the film doesn’t tackle it in enough detail.
I’m reluctant to call Teddy and April a budding romance as it doesn’t really go anywhere, I understand that the message of the film is that they are awkward teenagers and they can’t find a way to articulate their attraction but it seems like lots of setup for very little payoff. I do like the subtext filled interactions which feel like there are words on the surface that can’t really be said.
The content of the film was somewhat unnerving in places, there are lots of references to teen sexual experiences and ample drug use being shown frequently. James Franco is particularly difficult to watch as he plays someone who is particularly attracted to teenage girls. He plays it as so slimy that it is difficult to watch him sometimes. I never felt like the film was trying too hard to be shocking but there were some elements that were difficult for me to watch.
Overall, this is a strong directorial debut for Gia Coppola but I’m not sure the adapted source material suits a 90 minute film, I could see this being a really engaging TV series that allow the characters to grow and develop over a longer period of time. Given the disappointing adaptation of Skins in the U.S. this seems like ample material to base a series like that on. As a film it works for the most part, the story is strong and the characters are engaging. It feels like an honest portrayal of American teenagers and is absolutely worth watching.