EIFF: Palo Alto, receiving its UK premiere

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James Franco and Emma Roberts in Palo Alto. Photo: EIFF Press Gallery.

Palo Alto, directed by Gia Coppola, is a California based teenage coming of age story based off a collection of short stories written by James Franco. It stars Emma Roberts, Val Kilmer as her hilarious pothead step-father, a charmingly lecherous James Franco, and Kilmer’s son as the story’s moral centre, if any sense of morality exists in the film.

Directed by Gia Coppola of the Hollywood dynasty and famed filmmaking family, this is Coppola’s first feature film and she continues the Coppola legacy of exceptional filmmaking. Gia Coppola achieved hints of the sublime feminine energy her aunt Sofia has achieved befor her by shots such as three girls sleeping in a bed together after a party or Emma Roberts (playing the shy, virtuous class virgin, April) waking and falling asleep and functioning in a hoodie and panties – it’s these little intimate shots that really give the voyeur a glimpse into the beauty of an adolescent female.

The film, although it can be poignant and beautiful, at times feels like a fashion shoot, which is how Gia Coppola began her film career, as a director of short films for her friend’s fashion label. These tired sun-stained shots of pretty young boys and girls contradict the intimate moments that Gia Coppola has also succeeded in filming.

Throughout the film there are affecting shots of childhood objects during scenes of sexual awakening. Emily, who offers sexual favors to every boy to cross her path is seen having sex in her pink princess room. And there is a pointed shot of Emma Robert’s day of the week panties as she loses her virginity to her soccer coach played by James Franco. There is still a sense of childhood innocence in these adolescents: it almost seems as if all the drunk driving, pot smoking, and sex they have is merely a naïve discovery of who they are. It is as if they do these things because that is what normal teenagers in California do – what they really want however, is to be in love or be virtuous.

The promiscuous Emily naively just wants to be loved by a boy and the young Kilmer, although one conviction away from juvenile hall feels most content painting portraits of the elderly at nursing homes or volunteering at a children’s library. The ensemble of four teenagers seem to get caught up in promiscuity or awkward sexual scenarios but it never defines their characters.

A lot of the film is about waiting: waiting in American suburbia, boredom in American suburbia. And wanting more than that sort of tired existence: napping to escape boredom, boringly watching kids play video games. But when April first kisses her coach there is a moment that transcends the boredom of the teenage every day. With dreamlike cinematography and a trance soundtrack Emma Roberts is lost in the intense emotional high of teenage love as she feels the wind in her hair while driving in a car having been picked up by her parents after babysitting the coach’s and now new lover’s son. Like the twilight washed frame of this shot the film is about the twilight period between childhood’s end and the start of young adulthood.

Palo Alto is at moments visually captivating and evoking of youthful desire and innocence and danger. It fails in its perhaps too understated performances by the likes of James Franco and its near high fashion elements. However, at best, Coppola turns Franco’s coming of age tales into a lyrical dream of a movie. Overall, it is a film about America’s anxious children who like Holden Caulfield and James Dean have defined American adolescence as a state of poetic confusion. It seems Franco’s creative writing courses have paid off.

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