Release: Friday, May 9, 2014 (limited)
One of the last memories I have from high school is staring at the giant inflatable penis dangling from the roof of the Farragut High gymnasium — actually it looked more like a cross than a penis because the way the balls were positioned relative to the shaft. It was the senior prank, and this is how I would be leaving the school behind. Now a landmark fading in the rearview, what was once vivid and colorful has become a grayish blur.
If, for whatever reason, I felt compelled to return to this time through contemporary film, I know I can always rely on the emotional highs and lows of the James Franco-produced Palo Alto for reassurance that I’m now in a better place.
I’ll admit that my walk through high school (ten years ago next May, yikes!) wasn’t exactly a story even the least-discerning director would probably target for a low-budget drama. It’s the folks who unfortunately found themselves often ignored, bullied, threatened or in some other way marginalized in their daily existence, who often surface in compelling cinema. There’s a reason to root for the oppressed and downtrodden in the films we have watched through the ages. The dorks have Revenge of the Nerds; the awkward outsider rightfully lays claim to The Perks of Being a Wallflower. And there are others, of course.
Whereas these other titles more-or-less catered to cliques, Palo Alto is just ever so slightly more conscious of being all-inclusive, featuring a variety of students as well as their collective apathy that hangs in the air as thick as the humidity. Remaining faithful to its source material, Gia Coppola’s directorial debut is kaleidoscopic in its surveilling of several disparate, yet similarly troubled youth. Yet, the script remains uniformly brilliant in its rendering of circumstances and environments. And given the low profile of its cast, the film further benefits from the fact that we feel like we’re starting afresh with these young, unknown faces.
We first are introduced to good, but mischievous friends Teddy (Jack Kilmer) and Fred (Nat Wolff), who are comparatively well-behaved on their own but their frequent hang-outs together foreshadow nothing but trouble. Then there’s the quiet and despondent April (Emma Roberts), about whom there’s a rumor circulating around the school involving the girl’s soccer coach, the popular Mr. B (Franco), and his wanting to sleep with her. And yeah, that’s bad, but at least she isn’t someone whose social status is reduced to her ability to provide sexual favors to anyone who happens to be in her vicinity, someone like Emily (Zoe Levin). We spend more time with these characters than anyone else, though there’s a few others on the fringe who are equally fragile; equally endangered to leading a life fraught with danger.
Palo Alto may drift around a bit in its attempts to weave all these narratives together in a cohesive thread. The occasional dull moment does surface but none of them really endures. What’s more important is that honest portrayals of the teen experience are in abundance, with attitudes ranging from the convincingly cocksure — (what’s this, Nat Wolff as the new Miles Teller?) — to the painfully ambivalent and numbingly apathetic.
Coppola also likes to take it one step further. Aided by solid work turned in by her young performers, she wisely produces a few compelling reasons as to the decay in these teens’ personal lives. For April, she starves for attention from her parents: Val Kilmer plays her stoner father who would rather rewrite her paper outright than give her helpful advice on how to improve; her mother frequently has to break off phone calls so she can say hello to her daughter. (Woe as me, the inconvenience.)
For the others, we experience less of a single catalytic event than we do a series of wrongdoings and psychologically harmful developments that push the students to extremes.
In the case of Palo Alto, authenticity cannot be dismissed. It also helps that, barring the odd one or two individuals, these are some of the most lovable characters any Coppola has ever presented us with. We may not always approve of their decisions, but this is the kind of disapproval that stems from knowing that we may very well have been doing the same things (if we could remember). We now just hope that these people have the resolve to move on from this; that this is all just a phase.
This is the kind of movie that provides the opportunity to think back on those times, reflect, and feel grateful for what’s been given. I for one, am grateful for that inflatable joke on top of my old gym. . .but I don’t know about you.
Recommendation: I’m trying to find a better word to use than ‘realistic’ as a way to recommend this film, but I’m failing pretty epically. It is, in every sense of the word, a realistic snapshot of high school life, even despite it’s inclusion of only a few stories. From the brutally honest performances, to the authenticated settings. . . . . even taking into consideration it’s moody (bordering on overly angst-y) soundtrack. . . everything about Palo Alto screams authentic, and will likely bring back a memory (nightmare?) or two of everyone’s high school (or equivalent) experience.
Running Time: 98 mins.
Quoted: “This party sucks. . .”
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