The Coppola family has given us Francis Ford Coppola, Nicolas Cage, Sofia Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, Talia Shire and some very good wine.
Gia Coppola, 27, the granddaughter of Francis and niece of Sofia, is the latest Coppola to enter the family business. “Palo Alto” is her debut, an adaptation of James Franco’s book of short stories about disaffected California youth.
From “The Outsiders” to “The Virgin Suicides,” teenage wastelands have been a Coppola specialty, whereas Schwartzman presented a more idiosyncratic portrait of teen angst in the great “Rushmore.”
In “Palo Alto,” Gia very much takes after the soft aesthetic of Sofia (“The Bling Ring,” “Somewhere”) in presenting a cluster of direction-less California teenagers backed by a mellow, synthesizer-heavy score. “Palo Alto” is rife with the stylistic cliches established by Gia’s aunt and directors like Gus Van Sant.
But for a first film, “Palo Alto” shows promise in its character-first storytelling and its young filmmaker’s evident ease with actors. Coppola doesn’t force anything on her characters, instead capturing the unthinking momentariness of youth.
The film follows four high-schoolers largely outside of school walls. The settings of “Palo Alto” (which oddly contains nothing to contextualize it as the wealthy tech capital of its title) are house parties, bedrooms and soccer fields.
Emma Roberts stars as April, a gawky but pretty young girl. Though she’s a type – a virgin, the “good girl” – she doesn’t come off that way. Roberts, who has often played bigger, more theatrical characters, has never been better. As April, she shows a shy vulnerability, and the gentle timidity of the performance echoes through the film.
She’s drawn to the blond-haired, mop-headed stoner Teddy (Jack Kilmer, whose father, Val, makes a cameo as April’s father), but begins an illicit affair with her inappropriately older soccer coach (Franco), a lecherous single father. Teddy pals around with his buddy, Fred (Nat Wolff), a joker and agitator – the kind of kid who tries terribly hard to be erratic and unpredictable. He’s fooling around with the promiscuous Emily (Zoe Levin).
They’re all acting out in desperate ways, experimenting with their identity and rudderless without parental guidance. Teddy wrecks a car and flees, only to be easily caught and sentenced (by an off-screen judge played by Francis Ford Coppola) to community service. In the opening scene, Fred rams his car into a wall for a laugh. Lacking confidence, Emily develops a reputation for oral sex.
The kids of “Palo Alto” use each other, and the girls are usually the worse for it. But the film has more tenderness and delicacy than Franco’s deadpan, violent stories. It doesn’t sensationalize their partying or their sex lives, but sensitively depicts their lonely grasping in an empty world where adults either neglect, discipline or seduce them.
Franco has said he only wanted a female filmmaker to direct “Palo Alto,” and it benefits from Coppola’s feminine perspective. When April offers to play a combat video game while babysitting the son of Franco’s coach, the boy questions her avatar choice: “The girl character? She sucks.”
“Palo Alto” doesn’t chart any new ground, but its derivativeness isn’t as grating as it should be. That’s due to both Coppola’s obvious empathy for her characters and the sweet authenticity of both Roberts (the daughter of Eric Roberts and niece of Julia) and the newcomer Kilmer. Nepotism, it turns out, isn’t all bad.