Review: ‘Palo Alto’ excels only at artsy superficiality

CorrespondentJune 5, 2014 

April (Emma Roberts) gets involved with her high school soccer coach (James Franco) in “Palo Alto.”


  • Palo Alto

    D+ Cast: James Franco, Emma Roberts, Jack Kilmer, Nat Wolff, Zoe Levin

    Director: Gia Coppola

    Length: 1 hour 39 minutes

    Rating: R (sexual content, drug and alcohol use and language)


    Raleigh: Colony. Durham: Carolina.

Artsy superficiality is the name of the game in writer/director Gia Coppola’s debut film, in which a group of bored white suburban teens, entitled up to their eyeballs, do increasingly stupid things that we’re supposed to be concerned about.

I wasn’t.

The teen angst genre has been around since at least the 1955 James Dean classic “Rebel Without A Cause,” and even though the sex, drugs and violence ante has been upped considerably, the basic template remains the same – mostly middle-class teens acting out, parents and authority figures clueless to do anything about it.

So here we have pretty virgin April (Emma Roberts) who gets into a cringe-worthy sexual relationship with her high school soccer coach, Mr. B (James Franco, whose short stories inspired the screenplay). Emily (Zoe Levin) is the local slut, who thinks sex substitutes for real relationships. And Teddy (Jack Kilmer, Val’s real-life son) is the sensitive, misunderstood artist in trouble with the law whose best friend is the noxious, preening Fred (Nat Wolff), a character you’re just hoping will have the crap beat out of him by the end of the film. That doesn’t happen, but the fact that Emily rejects one of Fred’s advances by bashing him with a beer bottle, and Teddy bails on a suicidal car ride, shows there really is some justice in the world.

Not surprisingly, all the kids in this film seem to come from upper-middle-class families – their houses are luxe to the max – and most of the adults in “Palo Alto” seem to be dope-smoking morons or annoyingly condescending and dense authority figures. Got it? Affluent, unaware adults + Caucasian skin + nothing better to do but drive around in nice cars smoking dope = drama.

Uh, not really. Almost plotless, and filled with meandering scenes that go nowhere, Coppola’s film aims to hit the same sweet spot that classic “where did our kids go wrong” flicks like “Over the Edge” and “The Outsiders” (directed by Coppola’s grandfather, Francis Ford) did so successfully. And her overly artsy filmmaking – cue that slo-mo! – while undoubtedly stylish, only adds a layer of unreality to the whole enterprise.

Here’s a thought. How about a teen film in which the kids raise money for Doctors Without Borders, volunteer to work for Habitat for Humanity and tutor at-risk kids in the inner city? Plus, they ace their college entrance exams.

Not that anyone would ever make a film like that. Ever.

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