The first film I saw at the Toronto International Film Festival was “Palo Alto”, made by first-time director Gia Coppallo(the granddaughter of Francis Ford Coppallo). The film is a portrait of the messy, angst-filled lives of a group of teenagers living in Palo Alto, California. The outstanding cast ,including James Franco, Emma Roberts, Nat Wolff and Jack Kilmer, carries the film exceptionally well with naturalistic performances.
Based on Franco’s eponymous book of short stories, “Palo Alto” immerses the audience in the lives of these adolescences. Through their exploration of drugs, sex, general trouble-making and sincere love, these teens search for meaning amid their rebellious tendencies and plights.
The film opens with the jarring, slightly disorienting scene of Fred(Nat Wolff), with friend Teddy (Jack Kilmer) as passenger, drunkenly colliding his car with a wall. Fred does so on purpose and just because he can. The action parallels the teens’ other disaffected actions, like their encounters with drugs, sex and alcohol.
Robert’s character, soccer player April, portrays the pouty teen. She’s an outsider who means well and has good sense, but gets drawn into the charm and attractiveness of her older soccer coach (Franco). April is the least extreme of the characters, but is seemingly the most sympathetic. Her rebellions are quieter and her dangerous romance is almost forgivable, which is a nice play on the audience’s moral compass. You may find yourself asking “How can you blame her when James Franco’s character showed her so much affection and care?”.
These teens court danger and vices and participate in them for their own sake. Perhaps this is the best way they know how to deal with their frustrations and confusions. This kind of distance from responsibility and suppressant of emotions reflects every generation of teenagers. We’ve most likely all been through it – we thought we were better than judgement, meant to have fun and not think too deeply about anything. We can see ourselves in at least one of these characters, and perhaps that’s why the narratives are able to capture us and make us sympathize with the troubled teens on the screen.
Fred continues on his freewheeling ways throughout the film, rather obnoxiously, with a conniving attitude. Basically, he comes across as a jerk. There’s an interesting dynamic between him and Teddy, who shows the most emotional depth among the characters. It’s this dynamic that stuck out to me as one of the more compelling narratives of the film.
Ultimately, it is Teddy that has an encounter with the law after drunk driving, though one would expect Fred’s fun to be halted. Teddy’s exterior shows detachment and frustration, which plays out during his moronic behavior with the police officer, but it’s during his community service at a library where his sensitive, gentle nature makes an appearance. He is more than his angst-filled mask shows, which once again, is where audience sympathy comes in – and where the trope of the misunderstandings of teens is strong.
The narrative of Palo Alto is familiar, but with Coppallo’s direction, the story feels refreshingly original. It exposes the despair of teen life with a mature eye that paints the portrait in a stylish, yet laid-back way. She is a new filmmaker worthy of praise and one to watch. The vivid cinematography ( with cinematographer Autumn Derald’s hand, is at its best during the grounded party scenes) is paired well with the fluid, subtle editing, making the entwining narratives flow and complement each other.
The angst and plight of these teens is sympathetic and enticing to witness. With the cast’s watchable factor and understated performances, and Gia Coppolla’s brilliant directorial debut of powerful subtlety, “Palo Alto” will fair well with responsive, young film students and with a more matured audience, who wish to observe the plights of these young wanderers.
Watch the trailer for “Palo Alto”: