- EMMA ROBERTS AND JAMES FRANCO: "So, do you Instagram?"
It's easy to pigeonhole Palo Alto as the latest in what feels like a very long line of movies about disaffected wealthy white young people directed by a Coppola. (The Coppola this time is named Gia, and this is her first screenwriting and directing credit.) And if you're looking for something new in that most particular of genres, you'd be better off looking elsewhere. Based on a book of stories by James Franco, and starring Franco as a high school soccer coach with an inappropriate desire for one of his young students, Palo Alto is not a very event-packed film. Teenagers smoke and drink and do drugs. They talk about sex and sometimes they have sex. They break the law and sometimes they get caught. Franco's coach puts the moves on April (Emma Roberts). Everyone drives around a lot and looks half-sad, half-emotionally dead inside. It's like a Bret Easton Ellis novel crashing into an episode of Saved By the Bell.
But if you look past the posing and the pretentiousness, Palo Alto claims some significant strengths. Roberts, for one, gives a great performance as April, a girl with a remarkable amount of confidence, even when she has no idea what the hell she's doing. The cinematography, by Autumn Durald, is gorgeous; with their eerie nighttime lighting and their huge expanses of nothingness, these California suburbs may as well exist in some sort of dystopian future. Nat Wolff plays Fred, the kind of psychopathic friend that everyone has in high school, as maybe the most annoying human being you'll see in a film this year. Fred is reminiscent of a young Adam Sandler in the worst way possible: he's snotty and he's full of himself and he's always on the verge of some violent action, but people keep him around because he's never boring, and boredom, in high school, is a fate worse than death. It's these moments of understanding that make Palo Alto worthwhile.
But then you have elements like Val Kilmer in a useless supporting part that basically amounts to an extended cameo. (Kilmer's son, Jack Kilmer, stars in the movie. He looks like a very young Beck and he doesn't do much.) Franco's character, too, feels fairly extraneous to the plot, as though the teacher-student-sex angle is just there to add some smarmy sizzle to the trailer. Without the two biggest celebrity names in the movie, Palo Alto might have had to work its younger cast members a little bit harder, push them to some more revelatory moments. Instead, it feels like a movie that's coasting on its pedigree, like a rich kid on the first day at a new school, trying to buy some new friends.