The Kids are Making Movies (Palo Alto Review)

Gia Coppola, niece of Sophia, and granddaughter of Francis, explores teen lust, and boredom in her sophomore effort Palo Alto. Adapted from James Franco’s slight literary work, a collection of short stories about being young in the small Californian town, Gia furthers the idea that filmmaking is a rite of passage for the Coppola clan.


Palo Alto (2013) is a moody and pensive film, its tone drips with disdain towards adult experiences, and the kids are depicted within similar contexts to a Gus Van Sant movie. Jack Kilmer stars (Val Kilmer’s son) as long haired youth Teddy, who smokes pot, paints pictures, and drives around aimlessly with his best pal Fred (Nat Wolff). James Franco makes an appearance as a lecherous high school football coach, and Emma Roberts plays the virginal April, a girl struggling to figure herself out.

Val Kilmer has a small role as April’s pot smoking father but adults aren’t really a big part of the story. Instead Palo Alto is a film about teenage malaise, and about long pointless days waiting for something to happen. The film opens with Fred and Teddy sitting in a car late at night, talking with cannabis induced sincerity about inane stuff. Fred, who is introduced as the excitable, and perhaps crazy one, deliberately drives the car into a wall – boredom, affecting change, and the stupidity of youth are immediate concerns.

Fred (Nat Wolff) and Teddy (Jack Kilmer)
Fred (Nat Wolff) and Teddy (Jack Kilmer)

Jack Kilmer reveals himself to be a somber and controlled actor, someone likely to become an indie favorite after Palo Alto. His character, Teddy, is a gentler soul than Fred, but both push each other to extremes. They’re inseparable, they drink to excess, and there’s the suggestion that there’s some sort of latent homosexuality in their relationship. But Teddy has his eye on April, played with nuance and skill by Emma Roberts. Her performance is the glue that holds this dreamy film together.

Perhaps the most touching aspect of the story is told through subtle imagery. There’s the typical teen party montage, fueled by booze, dumb kids being dumb, and drug taking but after the frenetic depictions of frivolity have passed we’re left with a close up of a kids pair of socks. Not so long ago these young ‘adults’ were still children. Their bedrooms still contain childhood best friends – stuffed animals and posters of kid’s movies.

Grown Ups are Stupid

But our teenaged trio is headed straight for adulthood and their parents don’t seem to have much advice to offer. April’s dad, through a haze of marijuana smoke, tells her that her latest essay ‘needed a lot of work.’ It’s fine though because he’s happily corrected it for her. Later, her teacher fails her as it’s clearly not her writing.

In Palo Alto parents, and adults in general, are of no use. April’s visit to a high school career adviser offers up nothing new and her path through life remains just as unclear. Adults only interact with the kids when they want something. Franco’s football coach grooms April, eventually having sex with her, and his position of trust is cheapened. Sex in Gia Coppola’s film is a power struggle, and one that’s cruel and unkind towards its female characters.

Fred, Teddy, and a number of other young men have sex with Emily (Zoe Levin), a tortured girl, quick to go down on the boys, and quick to be spurned. Her story is one that’s immediately familiar. Liked by the boys for what she does, not for who she is, and spurned by the girls for being too ‘easy.’ She falls in love with Fred, despite the way he treats her, and of course has her heart broken by his carelessness.

Who’d Want to Be Young?

Often teen dramas, or coming of age stories, highlight the freedom and excitement of growing up. Everything seems possible and although there are moments of doubt, the kids are on a trajectory, they’re headed somewhere. Not so in Palo Alto. The story is one of aimlessness, of late nights with nothing to do, of empty spaces filled with kids just waiting for something to happen.

Gia Coppola’s film is about negotiations – kid’s figuring out how to become adults, figuring out their sexuality, and how to share that with others. It’s a narrative that works like a series of vignettes, loosely linked moments, a form that reminds audiences of the short story collection it’s based on. But it’s also a film about the way that adults, often ones who are unhappy with their lives, impart their choices on kids in the form of advice. More often than not this does more harm than good.

Emma Roberts in Gia Coppola's Palo Alto.
Emma Roberts in Gia Coppola’s Palo Alto.

Palo Alto’s story lies in the power struggle in sexual experiences, and between being young, and growing up. It tells a story of young people finding out that the world is indifferent but adults aren’t. They take what they want and then leave the rest. The sad truth is that these lessons shape and define those kids as they become adults themselves and the cycle repeats itself.

Gia Coppola’s film is a touching and melancholic ode to growing up. Thanks to the cinematography of Autumn Durald the scenes are captured in a washed out instagram haze. The tone of the film is one of nostalgia but it’s not for youthfulness – it’s for the certainty, and the sense of self, that belongs to childhood. The only person sure of himself is the little boy that April babysits. He knows exactly what he wants, “One Oreo, and one chocolate chip cookie.”

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