The characters in the dreamlike Palo Alto seemingly float in a disassociated state of being, untethered to anyone or anything. They lack the emotional compass to make meaningful connections, to live outside themselves. The teenagers drift without purpose, lost in the haze of adolescence; the adults fare even worse, predatory or clueless.
The suburban existentialism explored in Palo Alto isn’t anything new, but the experience is nonetheless refreshing due to the directorial talent evident in Gia Coppola’s promising debut. Clearly, she’s genetically wired as a filmmaker, regardless of what her esteemed pedigree may be. (The 27-year-old reportedly insisted on making the film without any help from grandfather Francis, aunt Sofia, or other family members in the business.) In this first film, Coppola demonstrates both a keen sense of atmosphere – the film’s northern California backdrop is otherworldly at times, even in the most mundane settings – and an appreciation for the power of imagery, not surprising for someone who studied photography in college. (An expressionistically shot sex scene consisting largely of shadowy close-ups and erotically charged fades is worthy of Bergman or Lynch.) She also exhibits a gift for bringing out the best in younger actors, particularly Emma Roberts (who more and more resembles her famous aunt) as the sweetly virginal April, and Jack Kilmer (who shares his father’s smile) as the troubled Teddy. (Coppola’s age may account for this.) Like the film, their performances are purposely low-key, but they stick with you because they dare to find inherent goodness in a world in which individuality usually takes a back seat to conformity.
The screenplay, written by Coppola, is based on some of the entries in James Franco’s 2010 collection of linked short stories. (Franco also appears in the film as April’s soccer coach and seducer, a role suited to his ability to convey benign duplicity with a smile.) As a short-story writer, Franco is no Raymond Carver or Grace Paley, but he has an instinct for the rudderless way that young people attempt (or better yet, fail to attempt) to navigate life. But it’s subject matter that doesn’t always translate well cinematically when bolder narrative conventions are absent – and are pointedly lacking in this adaptation. Consequently, Palo Alto slowly dissolves as it goes along, becoming as vaporous as the ephemeral pot smoke present in many of its scenes. As lovely as it sometimes is, what this film needs is a little more shape and a little less ambience. It’s a delicate balance admittedly tricky to achieve, but one that is clearly within the capability of this talented new filmmaker.