May 22, 2014 by David Hagelgans
“Palo Alto,” based on “Palo Alto: Stories,” a novel by James Franco, is Gia Coppola’s directorial debut. In many ways, this movie fulfils many of the tropes of a James Franco film: well acted, a thick plot and, of course, lots of marijuana. The film was enjoyable but just a tad overdone at times. For example, spending 10 seconds looking at a dropped milkshake while characters talk in the background.
The story begins with Teddy and Fred, played by Jack Kilmer and Nat Wolff, respectively, in a parking lot smoking. While talking, Fred suddenly slams the accelerator and sends the car into the wall in front of them, laughing uncontrollably. This sets up a film with a unique view on what some believe a modern American teenage life to be. We then meet April (Emma Roberts) and Mr. B (James Franco), her soccer coach and teacher. It then jumps to the first of many house parties in a town with little to no presence of authority to be seen.
The movie makes sure to hit every party cliche: red cups, lampshades and, of course, everyone waking up scattered and disheveled. Eventually, April and Teddy begin to show an interest in one another, which quickly dissolves when a girl named Emily (Zoe Levin) leads Teddy upstairs and April sees them. From there on out we see the two spiral in different directions: Teddy turns to drugs and is arrested for a DUI, and April gravitates toward a more mature man, Mr. B.
The major love story is between April and Mr. B. James Franco does a wonderful job of portraying a charming man in his late 20s looking for love with one of his students and players. He continually invites her over to baby sit his child and insists that she should come over so that he can help her study. April is tentative, but eventually gives in. In light of James Franco’s recent scandal with underage girls, this story felt especially disturbing. Every time he gave that crooked smile, it made my stomach turn.
Teddy is given a shot at redemption from his crimes. He must spend time at the local children’s library. Fred once again shows up in the story to mess things up. After getting into some trouble, Teddy has to meet with his parole officer. During this meeting he switches between what is actually happening and, for some odd reason, a scene of himself reenacting “Where the Wild Things Are” in the pajama suit from the book. I’m sure this made a lot more sense on paper, but in the movie it was a mess. Teddy is then sent to work at a retirement home where he spends a lot more time drawing. One of the residents reminds him that he must always follow his dreams, which is when we begin to see the only real epiphany for any character in this film.
Fred is the misunderstood, unloved drug addict, who of course finds love with Emily, the girl desperate to feel loved. He comes over to her house one day and convinces her to sleep with him by using the line, “Do you like building forts?” I am still unsure exactly what that means, but I assume it has some deeper philosophical meaning. The next time he comes over, she runs around in the backyard. The scene is shot from his perspective, his voice is overheard but his face is never shown, and his lines overlap themselves. He describes how later that night he eventually leads her to be raped by multiple guys. It was an interesting way to film such a sensitive scene, and I applaud Gia Coppola for doing so. Eventually Emily and Fred get into a fight at another party, and she hits him over the head with a bottle sending him into a rage.
The ending is sort of a compromise, which is consistent with this movie, since it was a mix of a typical teenage romance and a stoner flick. While the ending is open-ended, it is clear that one story is a happy ending and the other is not. I believe the movie lost itself at times trying to be overly artistic while failing to explain major plot points. The story seemed to have some sort of message that they just didn’t have time to film. However, this is the case for many novels in their big screen debuts.