Being a teen is rough. And I don’t say that ironically. In your teenage years, sometimes it’s impossible to differentiate the weightiness of situations that truly matter from ones that won’t even come to mind ten years down the line. Being a teen is a magical, mysterious time, when nothing happens and everything happens, where attitude and moodiness rules a life full of romanticism and boredom. And no film has captured that in the recent years better than the meditative, beautiful “Palo Alto”.
“Palo Alto”, based on James Franco’s collection of short stories of the same name, follows the intertwining stories of several Californian suburban teens including the naïve April (Emma Roberts), the troubled Teddy (Jack Kilmer), and the wild Fred (Nat Wolff). The film’s stories aren’t as scattershot as in Franco’s novel (which, although sparse and shallow, I did quite enjoy because its clear intention was to be sparse and shallow), but there is enough of a scope here to encompass intertwining stories that allow for more than a traditional narrative, rather one that drifts from character to character. We’re lucky that the leading trio we get, in this case, is so captivating. Emma Roberts, clearly the most experienced of the bunch, delivers her most nuanced, subtle performance to date as April, in a role as complicated as it is engrossing, and she makes the most out of every little facial expression, lighting up the screen with her earnest, troubled sweetness. A male counterpart to April is the introverted, quiet Teddy, who, after a drunk driving incident, is forced to do community service, which throws his life into shambles. Jack Kilmer, son of Val, has the facial expressions and contemplative silence that makes him someone to truly get lost in, and the way he ambles around when he walks, down to the smallest detail, perfectly captures the feeling of being a teen with nothing more to do than walk around aimlessly in the middle of the night. But truly, the standout here is Nat Wolff, of Naked Brothers Band fame, as Fred. Wolff is a revelation, a force to be reckoned with that is equal parts disgusting, engrossing, hilarious, awful, and downright captivating as the wild maniac Fred, who easily steals the show from beginning to end. Wolff has created a character here that transcends the film it’s in, and lights up the screen every time he’s on it, from his drunken riffs on a piano at a party to his climactic scene, which left me breathless. Actors like Chris Messina, Val Kilmer, James Franco, and more appear in smaller roles scattered across the runtime, and mostly make for a nice pedigree of set dressing for these talented young actors and actresses to play against.
Of course, Palo Alto isn’t just a display of talent for the actors, it’s also the debut of a new ring in an already ever-extending chain of cinema. Yes, Palo Alto brings in the newest Coppola to Hollywood, and this time it is Gia Coppola, niece of Sofia, granddaughter of Francis. Gia, whose background is in photography, directs Palo Alto with a distinct dreaminess clearly inspired by her aunt but also special in its own right, with an incredible use of lighting and smooth cinematography that makes Palo Alto a very distinct film that meshes beautifully with its memorable soundtrack. Coppola also wrote the film, and the screenplay crackles with its silent, stranger moments and its witty banter between teens, balancing a perfect mix along the way.
Down to its unforgettable final scene, Palo Alto is a modern independent artsy “Fast Times At Ridgemont High” and for that, it certainly deserves to be a modern classic in the recently thin teen film genre.
FINAL GRADE: 9.5/10