Palo Alto (Gia Coppola, USA, 2013)

I had been hoping to blog about a number of films – but the basic 24:7 drag that is term time means that I basically have space for nothing other than the nose to the grindstone. Imagine that – last year I managed to blog about a number of films at the London Film Festival – and this year I barely saw as many, let alone had a chance to write about them.

Either way, this is a brief blog that summarises things that I shall say this evening at a Discover Tuesday screening of Palo Alto at the Ritzy Picturehouse in Brixton this evening (Tuesday 18 November 2014).

The film is an adaptation of various of James Franco’s collection of short stories, Palo Alto: Stories (2010). It tells the story of a young virgin, April (Emma Roberts), who begins to have an affair with her football coach, Mr B (James Franco). April has a crush on Teddy (Jack Kilmer), who has to do community service after crashing a car while drunk – and mainly as a result of the bad influence of his friend, Fred (Nat Wolff). Meanwhile, Fred has a relatively disastrous relationship with Emily (Zoe Levin), the class slut whom he repeatedly treats poorly.

Perhaps predictably, the film is set in Palo Alto, a town of about 65,000 people in mid- to northern California. If the town has landmarks, they are hidden from view as the action of the film plays out in school classrooms, playing fields, in picket fence-style houses and in skater parks, the likes of which we have seen in countless explorations of small town Americana.

Indeed, although director Coppola hails – as her name suggests – from a family of prestigious filmmakers, this film feels less like her grandfather’s explorations of teen life, as per Rumble Fish (USA, 1983) and The Outsiders (USA, 1983), and more like something that we might expect from Richard Linklater or perhaps a slightly less experimental Gus van Sant. Oh, okay, we can also see shades of Gia’s aunt, Sofia Coppola in this movie – a kind of anti-Bling Ring (USA/UK/France/Germany/Japan, 2013).

For, if in The Bling Ring we see the way in which poor little rich kids avoid boredom by breaking into the houses and disrupting the lives of celebrities in the big city, Los Angeles, here we see how poor, more middle class kids avoid boredom by doing whatever they can in the small town: crashing a car on purpose, getting trashed at a house party, drink driving, taking drugs, having affairs, and so on.

Perhaps in this way the casting of numerous children of well known actors makes some sense beyond seeming like plain old nepotism. Gia Coppola is, as mentioned, the granddaughter of Francis Ford Coppola, but she is joined by Emma Roberts, the daughter of Eric and the niece of Julia, and Jack Kilmer, the son of Val (who also features briefly in the film as a stoner writer). Coppola’s mother also has a role, with, as mentioned Franco turning up to act in his own adaptation – with Atlanta Decadenet-Taylor, the daughter of former actress Amanda De Cadenet and Duran Duran bassist John Taylor, appearing in a party sequence for good measure. Oh, and the music is by Robert Schwartzman, daughter of Talia Shire, brother of Jason Schwartzman, and nephew of Francis Ford Coppola.

The nearly-properly-famous status of all of the kids – and even the adults – suggests a sense of their waiting for life to begin. It is as if their personal connections give a sense of how each of the characters is close to the action – Palo Alto is not that far from Los Angeles – but somehow they are also so far from it. Hence the self-destructive behaviour. Where Sofia Coppola might offer us a scathing critique of self-entitlement – we find it hard to like these people because of their belief that they must be indulged and/or entertained at all times – niece Gia nonetheless goes in a different and interesting direction.

Perhaps one way to convey what is stylistically interesting about this film is the weather, and thus of the film’s lighting scheme and colour palette. Rain never seems far away in the film; moisture seems to hang in the air; and the sky is not a luminous blue, but more often a slightly dull, mist-filled grey. As a result of these weather conditions, one is often in a sense – somewhere deep down – of uncertainty. Will it rain, won’t it rain? Will the weather actually decide what to do? And this uncertainty, suggested in the weather, transfers on to the characters themselves. And it is in the characterisation that the film shows its greatest strength.

James Franco is having a Marmite kind of moment. Some people love him, I guess, while many online commentators deride him for being pretentious, as one minute he writes a novel, the next he directs a film, and then he acts, writes poems, posts selfies on Twitter and so on. Nonetheless, between him and Coppola, there is a real sense here of uncertainty in the characters, as there is in the weather – and this is the film’s real charm. It is the uncertainty in April as she begins to have an affair but is not sure how to do it. She is kind of adult – able to see through lies, dealing with seemingly disinterested parents – but she also has no experience. She sits in a locker: a kind of quirky individualism, but also a desire for protection from the world.

It is the uncertainty in Teddy, who can come out of his shell when helping and drawing old people in a home or working in a library with kids, but who also knows that he has a wild side and who thus succumbs to the outrageous libidinous adventurism of Fred.

It is the uncertainty in Fred, perhaps, who makes out that he knows what he is doing, but who really is just driving the wrong way down a one way street.

It is the uncertainty in Emily, who is looking to be loved, who is happy to make out with guys and who does not understand the judgement that is imposed upon her. Even Mr B does not really know what he is doing, as seen in his dithering confusion about whom he wants to be with, where he is in his life and, indeed, his retreat into paternalistic clichés when his uncertainty is exposed.

In other words, what Coppola and Franco grasp well is a human sense of not knowing the future, not knowing what will happen in life, and capturing how that anxiety works itself out in a variety of touching, if sometimes self-destructive ways that therefore are agonising for the viewer.

Here perhaps the characters of Fred and Emily come into their own. Played respectively by Nat Wolff, who has relatively famous parents (but not in the league of the others mentioned) and by Zoe Levin (who does not, as far as I am aware, have any famous relatives), these two characters also seem most fragile – hence their being perhaps the most unpredictable behaviour.

Fred in particular seems to launch a one-person assault on a world that does seem so assured in its future, such that he perhaps commits the most (self-)destructive acts of the film.

Emily, too, though, seems deep down most afraid. No one knows what the future holds.

It is paradoxical, then, that the future is relatively clearly written for many of these actors, for the director and perhaps for other personnel involved in the film: their success is imminent.

Nonetheless, with this her first film, Gia Coppola (with input from Franco) has captured a moment of uncertainty, a kind of cinematic celebration of drizzle, which as a result is in its own way a fascinating piece of work. A film in a minor key, no doubt, but that is fleetingly beautiful nonetheless.

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About wjrcbrown

I am a Lecturer in Film at Roehampton University. I am a sort of filmmaker.
This entry was posted in American cinema, Film reviews and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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