By Nathan Smith
At one time in my life, I was a sucker for teen angst. Had someone directed me toward The Perks of Being a Wallflower and The Catcher in the Rye a little earlier, I probably would have ended up a sadder kid. But at this point, suburban ennui isn’t enough to carry an entire movie for me. That’s how I feel about the new film Palo Alto. The debut feature from Gia Coppola, yet another installment in the long-lasting filmmaking family, Palo Alto serves as an alternative for kids who’ve already smoked too many cigarettes for The Fault in Our Stars, a movie which would only remind them that they too can die from cancer. The moment we see a poster for The Virgin Suicides in Emma Roberts’ character’s bedroom, it becomes apparent what Palo Alto is up to. From the start, the movie gets swept up in its own blandly navel-gazing depiction of life for that rare breed: the young, beautiful, white, and middle-class. As I haven’t read James Franco’s short story collection upon which Coppola’s film is based, I’m unsure of who exactly to blame for this fairly superficial depiction of suburban life.
All that aside, there’s something to be said for the movie’s performances. I’ve never taken much notice of Emma Roberts before, but she’s almost a little too perfect for her role in this film, as are newcomer Jack Kilmer and Naked Brothers Band alumnus Nat Wolff. I’m excited to see what these young actors do in the future, because they’re a lot more than just pretty faces, even if Coppola doesn’t give them a whole lot to do other than pout.
I’m also pretty disappointed that Val Kilmer only shows up in the film for what seems like financing purposes. As April’s self-obsessed, pot-smoking step-dad, he hardly consumes more than two minutes of screentime, but still steals the hell out of those scenes. Val Kilmer’s fallen out of the public consciousness in the past few years and I’d like to see him back in it. It’s a shame that he doesn’t have more to do in this film. Gia seems to take a cue from John Hughes in that all of the movie’s adults are incompetent, Botox-ed to hell, or just not there. That works for the rest of the movie, as it doesn’t look like any of the characters have had much parental guidance, particularly the troublemaking character of Fred, played by Nat Wolff, whose father shows up in one of the movie’s weirder but more effective scenes.
James Franco also delivers a satisfactory performance. Although I initially feared that the audience might give him a pass for playing a creep, he makes for a convincing scumbag. He also contributes to one of the things the movie largely gets right, its depiction of how men, both young and old, prey on women. Throughout the movie, male characters half-heartedly recite lines they’ve heard on television, hoping for a quick suck or something else. There’s a weird scene where Fred breaks into a voiceover and fantasizes about essentially gang-raping one of the film’s female characters, Emily. This moment fails to execute what the rest of the movie does fairly well. Another scene between Emily and Fred, however, perfectly sets up this aspect of the movie. Emily invites Fred into her room, which still wears the pink and fluffy trinkets of her childhood. “Emily’s room,” says Fred while looking around. The line reminded me of Bruce Springsteen’s song “Candy’s Room.” Like the room of Springsteen’s lover, Emily’s room is a secret and private place into which she invites Fred. They make love and he quickly leaves, crushing her confidence as he goes.
Other than that, there’s not a whole lot here. The film’s got a great soundtrack, compiled by British musician Dev Hynes. In addition to new compositions, the soundtrack includes personal favorites from artists like Mac Demarco and Tonstartssbandht. However, I’m pretty sure there aren’t that many kids listening to Blood Orange and Die Antwoord at high school parties. The rest of the movie is too on-the-nose, with its Where the Wild Things Are references, vague intimations of sexual repression, and suicidal tendencies. Maybe I’m too old for the target audience, but this film’s depiction of kids who can only feel through sabotage and destruction, which they do by cutting down Civil War-era trees and drawing dick pictures in children’s books, left me a little depressed and disturbed. It comes off coldly even when it tries to imbue its characters with heart. Gia Coppola could probably have titled her film Not Another Teen Angst Movie, or maybe even Not Another Coppola Movie. In 2014, the films of Roman, Sofia, and late-period Francis Ford are all but interchangeable. Now they’ve brought another family member into the ranks. Gia has gone out of her way to note that she didn’t accept help from family members on the film, but maybe a little guidance could have helped. She shows promise, but if seeing the poster for this movie in the window of Urban Outfitters doesn’t set off a few alarms, nothing can save you.
Palo Alto is directed by Gia Coppola and stars Emma Roberts, Jack Kilmer, Nat Wolff, and James Franco. Rated R. 100 minutes.