Palo Alto (2014)

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“I wish I didn’t care about anything. But I do care. I care about everything too much.”

High school is a trying time for any youth. Friends come and go and a heightened sense of importance is placed on events that truly don’t matter all that much. I wouldn’t say this is a coming of age film…I’ve always hated that phrase. But it’s definitely about finding yourself amidst the madness and chaos of young adulthood. It sure tries, but Palo Alto results in an extremely well made yet bad movie. The story is a slice of pie, the flavor of the week, that never helps it’s surprisingly competent director. At only 27, Gia Coppola certainly has the skill to honor her distinguished family name.

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Starting things off is a conversation between pot smoking best friends Teddy (Jack Kilmer) and Fred (Nat Wolff). Teddy drives buzzed while Fred goes on a discourse about kings and peasants, and he might as well be comparing our culture to Serfdom. Teddy’s the good kid who does dumb things, getting into trouble mostly because of Fred, on his last leg before heading to juvie. Fred is a derelict. He’s usely drunk or high and doesn’t seem to have a good suport system in place to keep him from dawdling through life.

Palo Alto, Nat Wolff, Jack Kilmer

Teddy has a teenage crush on April (Emma Roberts). As the lone virgin in her social circle, she’s under constant peer pressure to do the dirty deed, especially since her handsome soccer coach Mr. B (James Franco) comes on to her while babysitting for him. There are side characters that are reduced to blatant airheads and a floozy girl known to give anyone a blowjob. They’re all in the movie plenty but never really do anything worth mentioning. None of the characters are whole or polished. Teddy is easily influenced, but why? Fred challenges social norms, but for what reason? April seeks affection, but how does that shape her? And Mr. B, he just wants to sleep with a younger girl. His motive is at least pretty clear.

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The ensemble of fine actors put on a show with Nat Wolff being the standout, but the source material here is awful. Based on a collection of short stories by Franco, you have to imagine that he lives in a boring, undramatic, and unfunny universe. It never rises above the characters’ shared aimlessness. As I said earlier, Coppola shows some formidable talent despite the uneven results. She exhibits a Gus Van Sant knack circa his film Elephant in her approach, while also showing us French New Wave style resembling Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows or Jules and Jim. Coppola clearly knows her stuff, as she should, and I’m excited to see what she makes once her screenwriting improves with age and practice.

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This movie suffers from a Holden Caulfield Syndrome, obsessed with teenage rebellion and malaise but never placing it in a suitable or worthwhile context outside of its California locale. Palo Alto clearly borrows from the quintessential classroom read The Catcher in the Rye. The comparison is undeniable, but unlike the definitive novel, the movie fails to make us connect or ever care. At its best it is able to open our memory bank and recall similar things that happened to us. At its worst, laughably contrived and uncommon circumstances take hold of the entire narrative. Palo Alto needed to be a little bit more like the Holden Caulfield it desperately tries to resemble. In the end, it’s an immature story that never grows up.

“Why do you have to try so hard to seem crazy?”

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

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