Palo Alto, the debut film from Gia Coppola (granddaughter of Francis, niece of Sofia and Roman), is one of the more peculiar movie-watching experiences of my life. While watching it, I mostly hated it. It’s based on a book of short stories by James Franco, and it feels every bit as aimless and pretentious as its author suggests. (It’s going to take a miracle to get me to think of Franco as anything other than a threat after sitting through As I Lay Dying and Interior. Leather Bar.) The fact that the specters of Gus Van Sant, Aunt Sofia (fascination with disaffected upscale youth) and (worse yet) Harmony Korine hover over the whole thing don’t help. It’s one of those coming-of-age stories featuring vapid teens with no particular interest in anything and adults who are either clueless, absent or even more messed up. (It has none of the wit, style, perception or canny musical choices of 2012’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower.) So why does it get three-and-a-half stars and the Weekly Pick? Well, the latter is by default. (It’s not that hard to be better than Maleficent and A Million Ways to Die in the West.) But the rating is because there are aspects of the film — including its last 15 minutes — that I can’t get out of my mind.
For most of its length, the film has no shape. It simply meanders from day to day and party to party like its characters. Perhaps like its characters, the film is merely self-absorbed and isn’t really interested in anything but itself. I suppose people with no interests beyond the next party exist, but they don’t make for very compelling characters. The only person in the movie with any interests at all is the troubled (if he wasn’t troubled he wouldn’t be here) Teddy (Jack Kilmer, son of Val). He has some artistic inclinations, but only just, and he’d really rather hang out and get in trouble with his repressed homosexual sociopath buddy, Fred (Nat Wolf). Otherwise, Teddy flirts with the idea of taking up with the school’s token virgin, April (Emma Roberts), but she’s so wrapped up in her not-quite-a-relationship with the soccer coach (James Franco), she barely notices. If these kids sound interesting to you, you’ll get more out of this than I did. Whether or not you can buy into the clueless adults in the film may be a separate matter.
Some aspects of the movie, however, are a very different kettle of fish. I like the way in which the film establishes Fred’s father (Chris Messina) as a 40ish stoner with a taste for high school boys. But better than this is that the film subtly suggests — never states — that this is behind Fred’s closeted self-loathing and self-destructive tendencies. Best of all, however, is the film’s final 10-15 minutes where it — and its three main characters — actually begin to do something. Two of them may be on a better path. One of them is clearly on a worse — though inconclusive — one. The mere fact that they have broken out of their torpor of ennui is bracing, and these scenes have a raw power that sticks in the mind. This latest Coppola to try her hand at filmmaking — as uneven as the bulk of her film is — may just be the goods. She certainly bears watching. Rated R for strong sexual content, drug and alcohol use, and pervasive language, all involving teens.
Starts Friday at Carolina Cinemas.