Gia Coppola’s debut feature “Palo Alto” is based on four short stories by actor James Franco, who grew up in that Northern California city. The cultural and financial center of Silicon Valley, Palo Alto is home to mostly white, upper-middle-class, highly educated families. African-Americans make up less than two percent of the population; the only black person seen in the film is a cop.
Emma Roberts plays April, a shy high school student but who is years wiser —certainly nicer— than her peers. She is mockingly outed by her girlfriends as a virgin yet she’s secretly having sex with her soccer coach (Franco). Conflicted about this affair April also has a secret crush on Teddy. Teddy is a sweet, but petulant, non-communicative pothead played by Jack Kilmer, son of Val Kilmer. The senior Kilmer appears briefly in the latest of what is a series of odd but memorable performances. Teddy’s best friend Fred (Nat Wolff) is combative and impulsive, putting both of them in bad, sometimes dangerous situations. Jack is not verbally sophisticated enough to keep Fred in check and both he and April are too socially insecure to advance their mutual attraction. Meanwhile, Emily (Zoe Levin), a girl with a bad reputation, easily seduces both Jack and Fred. Emily is sexually precocious yet still wears silly bandz (the ones pre-teens collect) on her wrist. The film is full of wonderful, subtle details like this. Even the privileged children of smart, liberal, resourceful parents must wrestle with the awkward transition toward adulthood.
Coppola, granddaughter of Francis Ford, also wrote the screenplay, and tells the story with remarkable sensitivity and insight. “Palo Alto” isn’t as bold or ambitious as her Aunt Sofia’s high school film “The Virgin Suicides” —it’s quieter and more elliptical, and the narrative is more modest— but it’s a solid achievement. The film contains beautiful performances by a talented young cast and a strong visual style (evocative work by director of photography Autumn Durald) that seems more inspired by contemporary photographers than filmmakers.
There are also interesting casting choices for minor roles: comedian Don Novello (aka Father Guido Sarducci) as a cocky art teacher, Colleen Camp as the victim of Teddy’s hit and run car accident and in vocal cameo, Francis Ford Coppola as a juvenile court judge.
“Palo Alto” opens theatrically on Friday, May 9 in New York & Los Angeles.