In Palo Alto, Gia Coppola adapts James Franco's harrowing stories of high school life into a striking debut 

Teenage Wasteland

Teenage Wasteland

Another day, another film about a teenage girl's burgeoning sexuality: Abdellatif Kechiche's Blue Is the Warmest Color, Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac, François Ozon's Young and Beautiful. Superficially, Gia Coppola's Palo Alto is part of this pack, but it's really quite different. Directed by a woman who's still in her 20s, it lacks the middle-aged straight-male gaze that lends an uncomfortable edge to Kechiche's and Trier's films: It has sex scenes, but they're not sensational. And while Palo Alto is based on several short stories from a James Franco book — he also "presents" the film and acts in it — it's directed so empathetically and convincingly it seems lifted from raw experience. While not quite at the level of Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused or Olivier Assayas' Cold Water, it comes closer than most contemporary American teen films dare. 

April (Emma Roberts) flirts with her gym teacher Mr. B. (Franco) and nurses a crush on stoner Teddy (Jack Kilmer). Her friend Emily (Zoe Levin) sleeps with every boy who comes on to her, including Teddy and his self-destructive friend Fred (Nat Wolff). Teddy gets busted for drunk driving after a party one hazy night and is forced to do 150 hours of community service at a children's library. He and April grow closer, but Fred's behavior becomes increasingly dangerous. His antics almost get Teddy shipped off to juvenile hall, while Mr. B. and April's attraction turns creepier. 

At its lightest, Palo Alto resembles a more explicit version of Franco's cult TV show Freaks and Geeks. Yet it maintains a constant thread of menace. It acknowledges the pleasures of sex, drinking and drugs, but shows their limits and dangers without overt moralizing. The partying in Palo Alto looks fun, but it eventually gets out of hand. When push comes to shove, Teddy proves to know when to say when, but Fred isn't so lucky. The film's final 10 minutes showcase Fred's inability to give a damn about the results of his self-destructive impulses. He's not driven by his libido or substances as much as a crazed recklessness: He just doesn't care about hurting himself or anyone around him. (Wolff, who appeared in Nashville two weeks ago to promote his upcoming part in The Fault in Our Stars, is impressively unsettling in a far less benign role.)

As suspect as Franco's uneven-to-unwatchable literary adaptations and filmmaking projects can be — as a renaissance man, he mostly seems driven to disprove rumors about his pot consumption — there's no denying he's an extremely talented actor. As aging, vaguely predatory Mr. B., he leaves no trace here of his unforgettable Spring Breakers rapper/gangsta Alien, but it's a performance just as risky and free of vanity. And much credit belongs to writer-director Coppola, the latest in the Coppola filmmaking dynasty, who truly takes the reins here. I don't know how much she's drawing on her own teenage years — she's obviously a lot more ambitious than her characters — but Palo Alto rings true, and not just in its depictions of women. As a director, Coppola brings out the expressive potential of all her settings, from noontime sun to nocturnal partyscapes: The dreamy, heatstricken ambience calls to mind another accomplished debut, her aunt Sofia's The Virgin Suicides. She breathes new life into very familiar subject matter.




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