Palo Alto, based on a collection of short stories by James Franco, is not only a brilliant showcase for newcomer writer-director Gia Coppola (the granddaughter of Francis Ford Coppola and niece of Sophia), it also highlights the talents of Hollywood’s next generation: Emma Roberts, Jack Kilmer (yes, the son of Val Kilmer) and Nat Wolff. While the film may not have a completely original screenplay, it does accurately portray the dialogue, mood, and mindset of its teenage subjects during their soul-searching (and sometimes soul-crushing) high school years. I don’t know if it is this truthful dialogue or the seemingly effortless acting by the main characters, but Palo Alto excels at showing authenticity in a genre of films that is normally lacking just that.
The story follows the struggles of a group of high school kids trying to discover themselves in Palo Alto, California. April (Roberts) is a shy, sensitive, yet semi-rebellious student that has a crush on her friend Teddy (Kilmer). Teddy is a sweet kid, but has gotten into problems with the law thanks to the bad influence of his his best friend Fred (Nat Wolff), an erratic, troubled young man with an aggressive streak. Fred and Teddy enjoy driving around town having seemingly deep conversations about some of life’s deepest questions, and talking about Teddy’s secret crush on April, of course.
Unfortunately, the timing isn’t right for April and Teddy’s secret crush to develop into anything more. When April becomes aware of some of Teddy’s silly mistakes, such as hooking up with an “easy” girl at a party and getting charged with a DUI, she ends up in the arms of her creepy adult soccer coach, Mr. B (Franco). Their illicit affair comes about during one of April’s many babysitting sessions with Mr. B’s son. This relationship is an underlying conflict throughout the entire film, much like Teddy’s community service for his DUI and Fred’s quest for stability. These three main storylines converge and diverge throughout the entire film, waiting to be finally tied together due to some external force. But what will that be?
Adults are minor characters in this film. The real work falls on the shoulders of three incredibly talented young actors, Emma Roberts, Jack Kilmer and Nat Wolff. Roberts carries the film, proving why she is one the most talented up-and-coming actresses working today. I have seen most of her movies, and her work in American Horror Story: Coven, but she has never impressed me more than in this film. Roberts’ is able to portray the flickering bipolar mood of an average teenager, being able to switch from reserved to rebellious with just a glance. Kilmer was also fantastic; so much so, it’s amazing that this is his first role in a film! Where has Val been hiding him? Kilmer portrays a brooding, vulnerable teenage boy like no other, expertly navigating the struggles of a young man, who is easily susceptible to bad but is hopeful that he will turn his life around and do the right thing. While some may first think Kilmer and Roberts were hired based on their last names, from the opening of the movie, it’s clear their talent brought them here.
Although there is nothing particularly novel about the storyline, what makes Palo Alto stand out is its authenticity to the subject matter and phenomenal young cast. Whereas most movies of this genre would focus heavily on major conflicts, Palo Alto focuses more on the mindset and mood of being in your formative teenage years. Major conflicts, such as Teddy’s DUI arrest and April’s illicit relationship with her coach, are plot points but are minor to the overall intention of the film, making you feel once again what it is like to be a teenager, where your main concern isn’t getting a DUI, it’s getting the attention of your crush.
My Review: B+