Artists fear an indifferent audience. But the middle of the road is also the most deplorable position for a critic to be in. It is far easier to shrewdly and bluntly tear a work apart based on its sheer lack of merit. Yet Palo Alto, from writer-director Gia Coppola, does have its merits. It simply fails to build a substantive whole from its more promising components.
When the title card slammed onto the screen, I felt a rush of excitement for what might follow. So much potential seemed to lie in that image, in the neon blue words against a black background. But for all of its laser-guided accuracy, the film never synthesizes a depth beyond the noise.
Based on a short story collection of the same name by co-star James Franco, Palo Alto showcases Coppola’s ability to establish an aesthetic. She frames the sun-soaked scenes with an almost voyeuristic intimacy. Coppola reveals a chilling apathy as her cameras float like dry heat above the privileged California city. The colors in Autumn Durald’s cinematography look superficially warm, but within the context of the film, they feel stunningly cold.
The unfortunate catch is that beyond the paradoxical visual palette, the film is depressingly sparse. Franco’s book consists of interconnected stories, and Coppola’s adaptation does have a loose feel that reminds one of a fragmented vignette mosaic. Scenes glide along in a haze, and they rarely linger past their welcome. For all of its undeniable beauty, however, this cinematic experience is ultimately soulless.
The film features an ensemble cast: Emma Roberts, Jack Kilmer, Nat Wolff, and the aforementioned James Franco. Roberts plays April, a shy high schooler and the film’s focal point. April can’t figure out how to express her feelings for the equally shy Teddy (Kilmer), but falls into an affair with her soccer coach, Mr. B (Franco, squeezing his squinty-eyed grin for every last drop of creepy). Teddy seems to be a genuinely good kid, but his best friend Fred keeps him trapped in the chaos. Wolff portrays Fred with a horrifyingly unrelenting charisma – a wild card in the fullest sense of the term.
As static as these threads seem, their plots unfold fluidly. In Coppola’s hands, the blurry teenage parties bleed hard and sharp into the rough mornings after. The shots hang sans pontification. We are left to find meaning in the space between these showcases of teenage mayhem. The problem is that we just don’t find it.
I hated high school. Most people share that sentiment. Perhaps what I’m most grateful for is that this film refuses to sugarcoat that experience with schmaltz. Palo Alto offers an unflinching glimpse at the ugliness in those four years by feeding us the barest slice.
In the film’s 100 minutes, we see these kids make fleeting attempts to alleviate their own boredom. They smoke like it’s going out of style, and have drinking and hookup habits to match. One pointedly tragic arc comes in the form of a girl named Emily (Zoe Levin), who tries to use promiscuity to heal her own loneliness.
The kids make a mess, make amends, and drive screaming through the night at least once, but Coppola never romanticizes it. Here, high school is hardly of any importance. In one brief scene, Roberts’ April sits down with a vaguely dispassionate guidance counselor to begin discussing college, and Coppola cuts away from the two actresses to focus on a dead plant in the counselor’s office. The image would be striking if the film was anchored by some larger ambition, but here it seems the only point is to show just how bored some upper-middle class high school kids in California can get.
A little directorial condescension might have added something. At least Coppola certainly has the cinematography to sell a compelling commentary on high school life in America. If she intended to leave something deeper beneath the superficiality she so accurately presents, then her film leaves that decidedly too implicit.
“You don’t care about anything,” Teddy says to April in the film’s final minutes. It’s a blunt summation of a heartbreaking truth about the work itself. Palo Alto, whether it’s trying to be or not, is an achingly sad experience. It’s a cinematic window into indifference. But that doesn’t make it much of a film.
Movie Verdict: Meh