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Saturday, May 3, 2014

Review: Palo Alto

A young, bright impressionable girl, a guy who just can't stay out of trouble despite his best efforts, and the wild and crazy youth that parlays on the fringe of the story. You've probably seen these archetypes before in a "coming of age" film, even a few variations of these character molds made an appearance in this past Summer's The Spectacular Now. It's easy to think, with how well-worn these tropes are, that we'd be suffering a bit of fatigue from the adolescent discovery story; and in less capable hands that would certainly be the case, yet Gia Coppola (grand-daughter of Francis Ford, niece of Sofia) has, in her adaptation of James Franco's 2010 short-story drug and aggro-fueled anthology has pulled off a trick that not only reveals that there are still layers to delve deeper into with this genre, but has crafted a film that recalls the same sort of reconstruction energy present in the Robert Altman/Chandler-adaptation Short Cuts. That is, of course, until the film overstays its welcome.

The plot is again, fairly standard stuff, set in the well-to-do California city of Palo Alto, we follow three privileged white youth: April (Emma Roberts, daughter of Eric) a soccer playing high schooler who has an increasingly inappropriate relationship with her coach (James Franco), whom she babysits for, while also having a star-crossed googley-eyed attraction to Teddy (Jack Kilmer, son of Val). Teddy can't stay out of trouble, getting a DUI after a making a big mistake at a party with Chrissy (Olivia Crocicchia) and is constantly drug into bad situations (some of them involving drugs) by his ne'er-do-well friend Fred (Nat Wolff), who has an increasingly self-destructive tendency. It's basically Fast Times at Ridgemont High by way of Kids. On paper, you've seen it all before.

Luckily, films aren't made on paper and its Coppola's execution that makes the early points of this project crackle. Coppola takes Franco's fairly sprawling narrative and condenses it into a tightly moving story focused very clearly on its three, arguably four, leads (with a few ancillary characters popping in and out for cameos). The authenticity on display is what makes everything lensed in Palo Alto feel so fresh. The majority of the protagonists never stray too far beyond the reality of the narrative, a consistent issue with films of this type, with April and Teddy particularly having a stirring connection that keeps the film's heart in check. Additionally, the technical choices made by Coppola and Cinematographer Autumn Durald, with their lingering shots and instinctive cutting turn Palo Alto into a very striking and stylish take on the youth movie.

Where things start to fall apart is with Fred, who begins the film as a sort of "frothing at the mouth" version of Ferris Bueller, and then never really develops too far beyond this characterization until a turn in the final third that's intended to play into our sympathies, but when a persona has been so inadequately formed in the earlier points of the running time, the end result is a little shrug-worthy. It's too bad, as Wolff gives a performance that's every bit the equal of Roberts and Kilmer, but he has so little to work with, every time he appears just feels like speed-bump in the on-going momentum that is formed around April and Teddy. The malaise surrounding Fred torpedoes the final act of the film and infects it with utter listlessness, and unfortunately derails the whole thing. By the time the credits roll, its hard to shake the feeling of great potential wasted.

But oh, what a fabulous first hour Coppola presents us with at least, with a luminous vision of youth, particularly of the female variety, learning how to articulate its needs and wants. It's Coppola's eye toward the fairer sex that makes the film worthwhile viewing, with Roberts playing a particularly radiant lead in what by all rights should be a star-making turn. 

There's nothing really new here, and it makes some pretty big mis-steps before it hits the finale, but it's worthy of attention for the debut of a new talent in Coppola, and I look forward to seeing what comes next in her career.

And James Franco is creepy as hell, so that might be worth the price of admission alone.

I give it a B-


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