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USA 2013
Directed by
Gia Coppola
97 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars

Palo Alto

Synopsis: A group of Californian high school students hang out, explore their world and experience the tribulations of being adolescents.

Recalling in many ways Larry Clark’s 1999 portrait of high school doldrums, Kids, but with a more melancholy rather than bleak tone, Gia Coppola’s film is an impressive feature for a first-time director and screenwriter.  In whatever respect she has benefitted from being the granddaughter of Francis Ford Coppola, Palo Alto evidences sophisticated film-making skills.

Based on short stories by James Franco, Coppola’s script deftly creates a meaningful weave from a series of random acts of adolescent immaturity. Teddy (Jack Kilmer) smashes his parents’ car and is ordered to do 100 hours of community service.  He is trying to distance himself from his irresponsible and destructive friend, Fred (Nat Wolff) and hide his crush on April (Emma Roberts) who is in turn has a crush on her soccer coach, Mr. B. (Franco).

Whilst the characters work together to create a convincing fiction, part realistic, part typological, it is the performances that bring them to life. Roberts who was similarly engaging in Adult World is winning in what is effectively the lead role as a still, albeit somewhat flirtatious, centre to the storms around her. Making his screen debut, Kilmer (his father Val, appears here in a cameo) gets the pained sensibility of the sweet but easily-led Teddy completely right. Nat Wolff is also strong as the charismatically egotistical, self-styled bad boy, Fred.

Coppola’s attention is firmly on the kids and the adults who are seen briefly (including one disturbing scene in which Fred’s father hits on Teddy) are all depicted from the younger person’s perspective. When Coppola does step back from the kid’s perspective it as a deus ex machina, defusing the intensity of events and introducing a sense of the transience of life and of the pain of adolescence through quietly observational moments.  

I cannot recall Gia Coppola’s aunt, Sofia Coppola’s 1999  debut film The Virgin Suicides well enough to say where the points of comparison are (although virginality is clearly one of them) but I suspect that both films equally strong portraits of teenage alienation. One can only hope that the niece continues to build on her considerable achievement.




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