Piers Marchant on Palo Alto

June 13, 2014

Palo Alto
Grade: 86
Cast: Emma Roberts, James Franco, Jack Kilmer, Nat Wolff, Zoe Levin, Val Kilmer, Talia Shire
Director: Gia Coppola
Rating: R, for strong sexual content, drug and alcohol use, and pervasive cursing
Running time: 100 minutes

By Piers Marchant for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and blood, dirt & angels

Let me tell you something: James Franco simply does not care. He doesn’t care that you’re tired of seeing his leering visage on books, magazines and movie screens. He doesn’t care that you’ve grown exponentially weary of hearing about his latest interests, be they directing, painting, earning a PhD. doctorate in multiple disciplines, writing fiction, or attempting to pick up underage girls via Instagram.

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He likely doesn’t care that you are largely unimpressed with his ever-growing body of work, including his most recent film roles, in which he’s stretched his artistic limits in unfortunate, would-be blockbusters (Oz The Great and Powerful) or sad-sack indie showcases (As I Lay Dying, which he also directed), or that he currently has no fewer than a dozen upcoming films in post-production. He probably also doesn’t care that you thought he was really good in Spring Breakers, playing a cornrowed white-boy drug baron who lives to impress the nubile ladies of his harem.

Franco doesn’t care because, for all his irritating industriousness, he’s not about success, at least in the strictly critical/financial sense. He’s too busy removing the creative filters and blockages that plague the rest of us and pursuing any damn thing he can conceive of, which, frankly, is exactly what any of us should be doing if we were ever lucky enough to be in his position of fame and opportunity.

Given that, we can at least be mollified by the fact that he didn’t actually direct the film of his collection of short stories from 2011; fortunately, that job went to Gia Coppola, who has composed an interesting if somewhat flawed teen lament.

It’s a familiar tableau: A well-to-do community comprised of fractured families whose children are disaffected, damaged and, in some cases, downright dangerous. In short order we meet April (Emma Roberts), a sweet-faced girl whose hunky soccer coach (Franco, ironically the least convincing of the actors) begins to romance her, not entirely against her wishes. April is good friends with Teddy (Jack Kilmer, sporting River Phoenix’s unhinged locks), an amiable stoner who nevertheless gets himself into trouble when he hangs around Fred (Nat Wolff), the aforementioned dangerous kid, so filled with pompousness and egocentrism he puts everyone around him at risk. There’s also unfortunate Emily (Zoe Levin), a sad girl given to finding love by any means necessary, often at the cost of her self-worth, sliding between bathroom doors and servicing boys like the hateful Fred at his whim.

The film skips around the lives of its myriad characters, looking in on them as they make fateful decisions and attempt to live with the results — April hooks up with her coach, only to find she’s not the only young player he’s had his eye on; Teddy gets in a car accident while wasted and has to do community service as a result; Fred goes further into self-destructive madness, a result, we are given to suspect, that comes from being sexually abused by his father; Emily finally seems to disavow Fred, perhaps to move on to bigger and better things.

The thing is, for all the (largely deserved) grief Franco takes for being such an artistic gadabout, there’s actually a lot to chew on here, in that Franco’s debatable writing skills are aided greatly by the surprisingly assured debut of writer/director Coppola, Francis Ford’s granddaughter. The 27-year-old proves skilled in the family business, getting strong performances out of her young leads and getting the right pitch for her scenes. In a sex scene between despondent, lost Emily and the irascible Fred in her childhood bedroom, Coppola has her camera focus instead on the ceramic figurines, dried flowers, and mossy stuffed animals that still surround Emily’s bed: a painful call-back to a time when she was shrouded in hope and innocence instead of the gangly arms of a puerile emotional predator. It’s a note the film gently hits throughout, the happy innocence of the characters’ younger siblings (or, in April’s case, her coach’s son, whom she routinely baby-sits) in direct contrast to the lost, jaded adolescent souls they will become.

But rather than continually soak her audience in the briny flush of total nihilism, Coppola is wise enough to find a range of notes in her characters. Teddy, for one, can be every bit as aggravatingly callous and irresponsible as his bud Fred (one appreciates his mother warning her son to stay away from that terrible influence), but in the same breath — as when he draws an endearing portrait of an elderly woman at the rest home he’s been assigned — he still shows signs of a residual sweetness. In teen-dirge tone we’re somewhere between the pitiless grit of Larry Clark and the sunny sweetness of Amy Heckerling.

Coppola has also culled an interesting cast — calling in some family favors, one suspects — including a fey Val Kilmer as April’s writerly stepfather and Talia Shire as April’s guidance counselor, among her young charges. If Franco is indeed the cast’s weak link, she smartly steers clear of him as anything other than a basic plot device for April. Like the other adults in the film, he lies far out on the periphery of the teens’ lives, a distant narrative provocateur with little direct sway in their lives.

The teens swerve around from house party after house party (implied: not a great deal of fully invested parents protecting their precious children from themselves), drink great gulps of booze, do whatever drugs they can get their hands on and fool around indiscriminately with one another, but there are still enough signs of hope — at least for everyone other than Fred — to keep from total despair.

So disparage Franco all you want, roll your eyes at whatever new scheme he’s concocted (a documentary!), and tweet about it unmercifully. Just understand that in this he couldn’t care less about your opinion: What he does, he does for reasons other than our validation, which is annoyingly commendable.


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