'Palo Alto' Review: Part Indie Music Video, Part Insightful Teenage Drama
Palo Alto, James Franco’s latest art project and Gia Coppola’s directorial debut is half music video, half poignant portrait of teenage life.
Based on Franco’s book of short stories, Palo Alto is about a group of teenagers, mostly seniors in high school, as they get into trouble and figure out how to survive being young adults. While the book covered many different narrators, the film wisely narrows down the possible points of view, instead focusing on three distinct characters: Teddy (Jack Kilmer), Fred (Nat Wolff) and April (Emma Roberts).
We begin with Teddy, a shy, silent type who isn’t so much reckless as easily manipulated, usually by his danger-loving best friend Fred. While Fred appears intoxicated by the idea of being a dumb teenage boy, where anything and everything is not only possible but encouraged, Teddy is more indifferent on the issue. He just wants to be happy, but his toxic friendship with Fred brings him much more trouble than it’s worth. Kilmer is truly excellent as Teddy. It helps that Palo Alto is his feature film debut. The fact that the audience doesn’t recognize him from a more mature role allows him to truly slip into the identity of a young teen. It also frees him from expectations, a crucial element to the role, as Teddy is the most malleable and subtle character of the bunch.
Wolff gives an equally stunning performance as Fred. Fred is the kind of dumb kid you just want to slap in the face for being so stupid and thinking it’s cool: in the first scene, he runs his car into a wall just to see what it would be like. Fred's constant desire to test his mortality is incredibly frustrating, and could easily have been played with over-the-top dramatics, but Wolff plays Fred with an authentic, manic energy that gives Fred's idiotic actions more than just a thrill ride.
In fact, all of the film’s young leads are wonderful. Zoe Levin (The Way Way Back), is heartbreaking as Emily, a girl so desperate for love she becomes Fred’s sexual plaything. Her character is underwritten and deserved more screen time. Emily could have been an opportunity for the film to really explore the gendered nature of popularity in high school: for Fred, a man, popularity is measured by how many death-defying, idiotic stunts he can survive, but for Emily, a woman, popularity is measured by how wild she’s willing to get in bed. Unfortunately, Emily’s experience as Fred’s 'girlfriend' – he has her have sex with other men, among other things – is left off-screen and communicated through Fred’s voiceover narration.
The voiceover is jarring for two reasons. The first is that this is the only moment in the film that features a character’s inner thoughts and voice directly, creating a unique relationship between Fred and the viewer that feels completely undeserved. Second, the voiceover felt like an easy out, a way to communicate Emily's horrifying experience to the audience while keeping them at a distance. The voiceover reminds the viewer that they are watching a film, lessening the reality of the experience of the characters.
Another storyline that felt too toned down was that of April’s relationship with her soccer coach, Mr. B, played, of course, by James Franco himself. In the book, the story is about a soccer coach who seduces a middle school-aged girl. The movie transposes the story into high school, which, admittedly, makes the story, not easier to swallow, but less visually horrific. But, by casting Roberts, an actress already well known for more adult roles (American Horror Story, We’re the Millers), the filmmakers took away an element of the story. Similar to Fred’s voiceover, casting a well-known actress made the viewer more aware that they were watching a film. This creates a sort of safety net for viewers and filmmakers because they are reminded that what appears on screen or what is told via voiceover didn’t actually happen.
It’s not that Emma Roberts is bad – quite the opposite, Roberts delivers a great performance – it’s just that she was miscast. In a sea of relatively unknown young actors, Roberts stands out, making her character feel less authentic. Franco, of course, is another well known actor in the film, but his presence does little to normalize Roberts’ presence in the film. Franco’s off-screen persona has become so absurd, that watching him play a creepy soccer coach is the least surprising thing a viewer could possibly see him do. Due to the nature of his character, Franco is able to use his controversial fame to his advantage in his performance, Roberts simply does not have that same luxury with April.
Despite the excellent nature of the cast, Palo Alto is not a great film, nor is it completely reflective of the teenage experience (for my taste, I prefer The Spectacular Now or The Perks of Being a Wallflower). That said, Palo Alto is engaging, and very thoughtful interpretation of adolescence, though it could stand to lose the long musical interludes.