In Gia Coppola’s Palo Alto, youth drift through the washed-out paradise, searching for something intangible. There is no linear narrative but there are many familiar characters, whose lives collide with each other in many ways.

First-time director Coppola (yes, of THE Coppolas) clearly has a handle on what she’s doing. Palo Alto feels more like a sophomore effort in certain ways – mainly, the pacing is smooth and steady rather than fractured and clumsy; a formidable task considering the film is a series of connected vignettes. Coppola adapted the screenplay from the book of the same name by James Franco and it mainly focuses on the tribulations of being a disaffected youth.

The cinematography often emphasizes the isolation felt by the characters. The film leaves the audience searching for meaning as much as anyone in Palo Alto – any comments or messages contained within the film exist on the edges. The film relies on mood and the strong performances of its young actors to express meaning.

The largest strength is most definitely the acting – each actor is so good at portraying the confusion and self-awareness of a teenager using simple gestures such as a bitten lip, a sweep of the hair, a shift in posture, or a glance. In particular, Fred (Nat Wolff) is hyperactive, charismatic, and terrifying all at once. He plays the obnoxious-yet-dominating Fred, who is preoccupied with destruction. His performance is one of the most powerful in the film – Fred is a reminder of how sometimes, your friends are also terrifying enemies. Jack Kilmer as his friend Teddy strikes the perfect balance between frustration and confusion, and he is amazing at evoking emotion through his eyes. And, although it’s hard to single them out, the portrayals of the teen girls were scarily accurate. If you’re unable to see yourself in any of the characters, you will surely recognize them as people you knew when you were that age.

Palo Alto also subtly illustrates problems with power and gender dynamics. The story line that will glean most attention in this regard is the relationship that forms between teenage April (Emma Roberts) and her charismatic soccer coach, Mr. B (James Franco). And it is worth examining, as all the signs are there from the beginning. You see Mr. B being friendly towards April, building her trust, and basically working her over. Roberts deftly handles her portrayal of April, as we see April recognizing these behaviours and trying to make sense of them. Roberts is able to communicate all of this non-verbally and she is wonderful to watch.

However, the character Emily (Zoe Levin) and her story arc provides the most in terms of problematic gender dynamics. Emily is one of those girls who will “suck any dick somebody puts in front of her,” according to one of her female peers. During “never have I ever” she wistfully professes, “I’ve never been in love,” and from then on we see her trying to use sex to find love. That moment instills in the audience empathy for Emily that you’re never quite able to shake. The charismatic and destructive Fred easily preys on her vulnerability and ends up using her in the most heartbreaking way. That being said, Emily’s character arc ends with one of the most intense and cathartic moments of the film, with Emily asserting herself in a very violent way.

Although the film was enjoyable and touched on some deep issues, it also suffers from being too vague at times. Traumatic events happen, but the consequences never feel as impactful as they could be. But, perhaps that is just a side effect of all the characters being white upper/middle class. That’s not to say they suffer no consequences whatsoever, it just feels at times as though everything has taken place inside of a bubble, separate from life’s harsher realities. But, while Palo Alto has its weak moments, there are enough interesting and familiar characters to make it worth the visit.

By Carly Smith

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