Sunday, May 18, 2014

Walking (Precariously) In A Teenage Wonderland

James Franco as Mr. B and Emma Roberts as April in Gia Coppola's "Palo Alto", based on Mr. Franco's book.
  Tribeca Film

Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Sunday, May 18, 2014

Few films burrow into the hearts, minds and feelings of teenagers as perceptively and as brilliantly as Gia Coppola's "Palo Alto".  A wonderfully intimate and tactile drama, Ms. Coppola's film follows three teenagers in the Northern California Bay Area city going through crisis and a transition to adulthood.  Teddy (Jack Kilmer) is doing community service for a DUI (driving under the influence).  Fred (Nat Wolff), an angry, insulated figure, is Teddy's best pal and loosest cannon.  April (Emma Roberts) is a sensitive soccer player whose affair with her lonely single-dad coach Mr. B. (James Franco) threatens to boil over.

Evoking the tone and mood of such films as "The Last Picture Show", "Palo Alto" isn't just a coming-of-age drama.  It's a culmination of feelings, impressions and emotions, and this is what Ms. Coppola, in her superb feature directing debut, captures so ably and thoroughly, with picture-perfect cinematography from Autumn Durald.  A scene showing April's first sexual experience is shot in a fragmented way, personalizing and intellectualizing the sensations April feels.  It's an accurate depiction of a sexual episode, and, from a woman's perspective.  So much more is felt and absorbed from this choice of filmmaking style for a sex scene than from a standard show of naked bodies heaving and writhing.  With this fresher approach Ms. Durald and Ms. Coppola keep the level of psychology and mental immersion consistent throughout and in doing so attain something deeper, more meaningful, erotic and lasting.

The world "Palo Alto" inhabits is much less about the city itself than the state of mind of its principal minors, who could be anywhere in the world let alone a city about an hour or so south of San Francisco.  In this film the teens are literally anywhere: immersed in drugs, drink, riddles and conundrums or Big Bad Wolves-as-adults.  In the film's teen sphere adults (a DUI victim, a scolding city administration official, a police officer, a friend's dad among others) can look or sound ridiculous or awkward.  Rules seem foolish.  A parent or adult saying "I love you" to a teenager is often hollow or desperate.  Quite deliberately, the film's adult voices are often heard for a good few moments before their faces are seen.  And we hear their voices after their faces are long gone. 

It's that voice of nagging, annoying moralizing that feels empty to a teenager, as the adults who lecture themselves possess contradictions.  One scene involving a woman and Teddy highlights the absurdity and hypocrisy of it all, a funny moment the film caricatures less than Teddy's point-of-view look does. 

"Palo Alto" is a sensitive film with authentic, unabashed teenage voices we feel from deep within and identify with.  These voices needn't make sense or be comforting to adults or teens.  Where films like Larry Clark's "Kids" were fueled by a generation of angry, volatile renegades and dysfunctional outcasts against the backdrop of an indifferent society, "Palo Alto" focuses distinctly on a generation struggling to define itself and assimilate in society.  These teens want to define themselves on their own terms and in their own time.  They don't necessarily want to be praised by adults but want to coexist and be respected by them at the very least.  The bill of goods the adults sell are often viewed with the expected skepticism and eye-rolling.

With the oft-mentioned "scandals" involving teachers and students having sex on and off school property, it's well past time to say that the media covering these affairs are well and truly behind the times.  People having consensual sex across authority lines, on office property and off it, and vast age differences, has happened since time immemorial.  Newsflash: it won't stop.  "Palo Alto" addresses these realities simply in a scene with Mr. B's son and April, who babysits him.  April's despairs about life are often reinforced by adults who haven't a clue but are uplifted by pure, well-meaning wayward spirits like Teddy. 

Speaking of which, Jack Kilmer is a revelation as Teddy.  Excellent here as a kind-hearted soul wise beyond his years, Mr. Kilmer gives Teddy a likable everyday teen quality, making Teddy and Mr. Kilmer himself the boy most likely to succeed in life.  A teen audience member recently told Mr. Kilmer, whose father Val appears in "Palo Alto" as April's drug-addled stepfather, that "when I saw Teddy on the screen it was like I saw a friend up there."  That's the ultimate compliment and testament to Mr. Kilmer, who has never acted before on camera.  He has a great future if casting directors ever choose to take notice.

"Palo Alto" is a sensational, generation-defining film very much in tune with its subjects.  It views life through a teen's eyes while showing adults to be as confused and underdeveloped as their junior counterparts.  No one ever graduates from that thing called life let alone figures it out.  There's a smartness and absence of judgment of adults and teens by Ms. Coppola, who adapted "Palo Alto" from Mr. Franco's anthology.  This, along with Mr. Kilmer's great performance, is the film's best asset.

Also with: Zoe Levin, Talia Shire, Jacqueline Getty, Chris Messina, Micah Nelson, Janet Jones Gretzky.

"Palo Alto" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for strong sexual content, drug and alcohol use, and pervasive language - all involving teens.  The film's running time is one hour and 40 minutes.

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