In 2010, James Franco published a book of short stories titled Palo Alto. The stories were tangentially linked and contained teenagers in Palo Alto, California doing bad things and having a tough family life — often leading to those aforementioned bad things. Now, the book has been adapted into a feature film by Gia Coppola, making her feature-length directorial debut. And guess what? James Franco is in the movie, here playing a soccer coach who pines for one of his players. In high school. Ick.
Franco isn’t our lead, though. He’s a major player in one of the stories, but, really, he’s just another person. In the story in which he’s involved, the lead is April (Emma Roberts), the soccer player he, well, I’ve already said. April is a decent enough person, not doing a whole lot wrong and just kind of finding herself in a less-than-ideal situation. She’s perhaps the least interesting of our main characters.
The next story focuses on Teddy (Jack Kilmer), who has to learn that his best friend, Fred (Nat Wolff), might be more trouble than he’s worth. Fred kind of functions in his own story, during which he takes advantage of another girl, Emily (Zoe Levin), and does other unpleasant-to-watch things. You don’t sit and watch a movie like this one hoping to have a good time. The moral depravity has set in long before the opening title sequence, and it just gets worse from there. The film is chronicling what these bored kids do with their lives when they have the motive and the opportunity. That’s it.
It’s really easy to see how viewers will struggle to care about most of the events taking place in Palo Alto. The characters aren’t the deepest, the story is aimless — this is all done to prove a point and set a tone, by the way — and most of the film’s events matter far more in the story world than they would to us. Events in these characters’ lives don’t really mean much to an outsider, even if they’re the most important thing they’re currently dealing with. Go talk to a teenager about his or her issues and walk away honestly telling yourself you care. Go on.
Palo Alto is undoubtedly stylish. Its cinematography is top-notch, and some of the choices made to ensure it looks artsy — that slow-motion, though — will attract some viewers. There’s some talent on display from behind the camera. It’s almost as if — gasp — the Coppola family understands how to make movies. What a shock that is, huh? Who’d have thunk it?
Actually, speaking of Coppolas, Gia’s Palo Alto is kind of reminiscent of Sofia’s The Bling Ring from a year earlier. The aimlessness, the shallow characters, and the teenage focus brings obvious parallels. Palo Alto is better, though, as it has more impressive acting and won’t annoy you for its entire running time. If I had a gun pointed at my head and I was told to recommend just one, Palo Alto would get the vote. I’m on the fence about recommending it anyway. It almost does enough right to warrant a watch. Almost.
At least Palo Alto has some good acting. James Franco plays a believable creep, Jack Kilmer is surprisingly good for his debut film role (his father, a little-known actor named Val Kilmer, has a minor role in the film, and is funny in it), Nat Wolff works as a complete jerk, and Emma Roberts is fine in a blander-than-I-hoped role. Actually, it’s probably Jack Kilmer who will be using this film as a way to get other roles. If there’s one standout, it’s him. Hopefully we’ll see him in more movies in the future, assuming he can duplicate the quality of performance he demonstrates here.
Palo Alto is a decent film about how awful teenagers can be when fueled with rage, angst, emotion, and boredom. Like so many other films before it, it makes its point perfectly fine. It’s suitably aimless and unpleasant. It has good acting. It is not for everyone or even most people. It will bore or repulse the average Joe and Jane who just know their kids — who are totally already asleep right now, as they have to get up early to bake cookies for orphans — will never interact with anyone like what’s portrayed here, because this film is just so unrealistic.
Except it’s not.