The feature debut of the most recent member of the Coppola clan to pick up a film camera, Gia (granddaughter of Francis), is also an entry to the evergreen staple of American cinema: the teen movie. Coppola acknowledges the tropes of the genre without bowing to them. Based on a collection of short stories by James Franco, it’s intriguing that Palo Alto (2013) almost offers a meta-commentary on its producer and star, who attracted controversy last year for his inappropriate interactions with a young female fan on social media. The film covers a number of predatory relationships of different kinds, with Coppola doing well not to allow the charm of the abusers to seep too deeply into the fabric of the film.
It is at its best when finding a balance between moments of humour and camaraderie with an edge of unease; one notable scene featuring Teddy hanging out with Fred’s father, played by Chris Messina in a one-scene cameo, is particularly striking. Palo Alto‘s narrative is somewhat episodic, weaving together strands of different stories: April (Emma Roberts) has a crush on Teddy (Jack Kilmer), but is also dealing with the flirtatious advances of her soccer coach, Mr. B (James Franco). Teddy and his friend Fred (Nat Wolff) argue and get into trouble; Fred treats Emily (Zoe Levin) with casual cruelty. The way these characters dip in and out of each others lives is somewhat reminiscent of Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), though the world of Palo Alto is much harsher on its young inhabitants.
The film that it bears the most striking resemblance to, however, is Coppola’s aunt Sofia’s own debut feature: The Virgin Suicides (1999). Saturated in music and shot with a similar glow, the two films could almost be companion pieces separated by a decade and a half. While The Virgin Suicides reveals a director who has already found and refined their voice, Palo Alto suggests that the younger Coppola is still finding herself as an artist. At its best, it offers a seductive, dreamlike atmosphere and moments of real beauty. While Coppola does not always find the balance between that dreaminess and the menacing darkness that laces the underside of the piece, there’s a lot to like about this debut.