Based on a series of disparate short stories written by James Franco – who also stars – Palo Alto (2013) is the directorial debut of Gia Coppola and concerns the lives of a group of teenagers living in the titular city in California. Employing a laid back, observational style not unlike that of her aunt Sofia, Coppola’s vision of misspent youth is perhaps too heavily influenced by the high school films it directly and indirectly references. The plot focuses on April (Emma Roberts), considered to be somewhat innocent by her school friends, but who harbours feelings for Teddy (Jack Kilmer, son of Val) whilst being the object of her teacher, Mr. B’s (James Franco) affections.
Meanwhile, Teddy is torn between his seemingly good intentions and the impulse to court danger under the influence of live wire Fred (Nat Wolff), who starts fooling around with April’s more promiscuous school mate Emily (Zoe Levin). So far, so high school, and with a lack of depth to the characterisation Teddy, Fred, April and Emily might just be lifted from any other teen movie, with Roberts cast as either Diane in Say Anything, Claire in The Breakfast Club or in fact – as Palo Alto makes a direct reference to – Linda in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. That a high school film appears like others of its ilk might not seem much of a criticism, but all too often Coppola’s first offering reaches aesthetically towards better examples of the genre, falling short of joining the gang due to a lack of narrative focus.
Each of the characters have the potential to be interesting – certainly Teddy’s dilemma to keep hanging out with unpredictable, misogynistic Fred or apply himself fully to his artistic talents is bolstered by a suitably sensitive performances by Kilmer, whose soft line readings are uncannily similar to his father’s. Yet the disjointed structure sees each troubled teen given their own individual focus – a technique no doubt transferred from the short stories – with the result of creating superficially sketched episodes – akin to four short, interconnected films – that nevertheless fail to truly explore the inner lives of the characters. What Palo Alto lacks compared to the teen films it admires might simply be likable characters, fleshed-out, authentic personalities who “care” and might allow the impressive cast to demonstrate their considerable charisma, rather than a cool distanced view of a disaffected youth. Then again, maybe what Coppola has contributed to the teen movie genre is an example of true 21st century adolescence – the Facebook generation writ large on the big screen where the demands of enthusiasm are limited to ‘like’.
The 68th Edinburgh Film Festival takes place from 18-29 June 2014. For more of our EIFF coverage, follow this link.