Review by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
Director: Gia Coppola
Stars: James Franco, Emma Roberts, Jack Kilmer, Nat Wolff, Zoe Levin, Claudia Levy
Running time: 98 minutes
One of roastmaster Seth Rogen's best jokes during last weekend's The Comedy Central Roast of James Franco lampooned the tirelessly prolific celeb's prose habits. "Franco, you look like you're asleep? Did you just read a James Franco book?" Rogen was, at least in part, referring to Franco's 2010 Palo Alto, a collection of related short stories about wayward teens inspired by his own youth and anecdotes submitted by Palo Alto Senior High School students. But perhaps Rogen has also seen an early cut of first-time director Gia Coppola's adaptation of Palo Alto, because it'd surely put a man as presumably exhausted as Mr. Franco must be to sleep, even if he co-stars in it.
Pulling from selected characters from the collection, Coppola's film is yet another entry into the teenagers-are-screwed-up sub-genre of films that's been all the rage in 2013, falling in line with Gia's aunt Sofia's The Bling Ring and Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers. Only Palo Alto has no edge or spunk. An ensemble piece, Palo Alto is, to its credit, a fine showcase for a trio of promising young actors, but they're not given much to do. There's Emma Roberts, an angelic presence who's cast as April, a good girl caught between feelings for an inarticulate skater classmate, Teddy (Jack Kilmer, son of Val), and her much older soccer coach, Mr. B (Franco). When he's not fumbling his words around April, Teddy's hanging out with his compulsive and obnoxious friend, Fred (Nat Wolff), who's also in the middle of a budding relationship, though, the jerk that he is, Fred's merely using the promiscuous but love-seeking Emily (Zoe Levin). She wants to cuddle after sex, but Fred's quick to vacate her bedroom to go get high.
The trio of Roberts, Kilmer, and Wolff all do the most they possibly can with their roles, namely Roberts in the busy up-and-comer's best performance yet. The film's meatiest character by a long-shot, April affords Roberts many chances to tap into something deeper than Palo Alto's mostly superficial demeanor—as Mr. B works his devilish older-man charms on her (Franco plays a good not-entirely-unlikable sleaze), Roberts hits the perfect sympathetic nerve, making April seem both lustful and uncertain. It's precisely the kind of moment Palo Alto needs more of, and it's only one of a few. Effective in spots, Palo Alto ultimately feels too much like a fiction anthology come to life, an uneven compendium of vignettes that can't find its nucleus.
Having nicely cast her first film, Coppola—who also wrote the script—relies too heavily on her actors' charms and director of photography Autumn Durald's hypnotic, at times dreamlike visuals to carry the weight. Palo Alto's all mood and little narrative; it's easy to get caught up into the film's airiness early on, especially with composer Robert Schwartzman's woozy synth score lulling viewers into a sense of wooziness, but the vibe doesn't last long enough to sustain a full 90-minute movie.
Once the high goes down, the aimlessness of Coppola's script becomes a major deterrent, and the lack of any clear-cut resolutions only makes things worse. Ambiguity's always welcome in storytelling, but it works best when there's something tangible enough there to feel ambiguous about.