Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Palo Alto

In Gia Coppola's debut feature "Palo Alto," Emma Roberts plays April, a hard-working and conscientious high school student who spends most Saturday nights babysitting for her soccer coach, Mr. B (James Franco, looking edible in his black tracksuit).

Mr. B goes out on dates, but comes home and tells April she's much more his cup of tea. They begin a secret romance (and I like that Coppola never reduces the plot to whether he'll be found out). Meanwhile, Teddy (Jack Kilmer) sends April longing looks from afar. We can see that there's good in him, but to all outward appearances (he commits an especially inept DUI early in the picture), he's an aimless punk following in the footsteps of his stoner stepdad (Jack's father, Val Kilmer).

Teddy's best friend - for no apparent reason - is the true troublemaker, Fred (Nat Wolff), the kind of kid who's liable to pull a knife out of his pocket at any moment. After Fred's had his way with Emily (Zoe Levin), a promiscuous girl just beginning to learn she can't buy love with sexual favors, he throws her, clothed, into a swimming pool. When Teddy carves April's name into a century-old tree, Fred's response is to pilfer his dad's chainsaw and chop the tree down. 

His dad, Mitch, is played by the always terrific Chris Messina, who has just one scene - but it's the movie's best - sitting with Teddy smoking a joint while waiting for Fred to return home. Mitch is clearly attracted to Teddy, and as the two shift seats on a sofa and Teddy gently but insistently rebuffs Mitch's touch, it's more than a dance of queasy discomfort; there's a real sadness to it. Still, what a narrow vision Franco's script represents: a world of kids behaving badly and adults behaving much, much worse.

In her directorial debut, "The Virgin Suicides," Gia's aunt Sofia Coppola showed a signature look and a keen eye for the framing of images. Her niece hasn't yet found her own style. "Palo Alto" could take place anywhere - there's no sense of place - and, like Teddy, what one reads into its blank stare says more about the viewer than the film. By the end, when Fred drives the wrong way down the freeway, apparently on a death wish (and Billy Friedkin should get a royalty every time a director "borrows" that trope), you get the sense Coppola has no idea what she's trying to say.

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