James Franco's Brett Easton Ellis-like list of sensations in short story form has been inverted in Gia Coppola's fine debut Palo Alto. Maybe the problem with reading it was that it was meant to be a movie all along.
Franco's book was like a medieval chronicle; this happened and then that happened, no reason given. This was deliberate; one subplot in Palo Alto concerns the problem of causation. The troubled Fred (Nat Wolff, very good) likes to quiz anyone who'll listen on how they'd live if they lived in the time of the Egyptians or the knights in armor. It's as if he felt his lack of options was determined centuries ago.
The difference is that the sexes have been switched: the main point of view is not a teen boy but a teen girl, April, played winningly and touchingly by Emma Roberts. Dismissed by her mean, popular friends as a "sweet little virgin," she has the intelligence to understand what's going wrong around here. Roberts' April is tremendously expressive, but not saltless, spineless or pathetic; she does beguilingly forlorn things like perching in the floor of her locker when she eats lunch, so that it guards her back like a tortoise's shell.
April likes the shy Teddy (Jack Kilmer) and keeps seeing him socially, but there's interference. Mr. B (Franco), her soccer coach, has a thing for her. And the promiscuous Emily (Zoe Levin) also interferes, helping herself to Teddy at a drunken party, before eventually hooking up with Fred. Coppola handles the sex scenes above the neck, mostly. If, during a summer morning sequence, Coppola lays Levin out on a couch like one of her aunt Sophia's odalisques, Coppola also focuses on Levin's green eyes as she judges what effect she's having on Teddy as she gives him oral sex. Likewise, the director tells the stages of losing virginity by a closeup on an actor's mouth.
Unsupervised parties hold the four corners of the story together, but they're neutrally told: Coppola floats along with it, not judging it as Roman decadence, and yet never swept away by the tides. Franco's legends of Palo Alto in the 1990s have been updated to the present, and with maybe a bit of anachronism. Times weren't as loose as the '70s, but an affair between a teacher and a student some 20 years ago was still not the stuff of the kind of scandals they have now. Unlike the next bumper of Franco short stories adapted into film—the ones his company was filming locally last winter—Palo Alto wasn't filmed in Palo Alto. But the locations are also not noticeably not Palo Alto, even though I thought I saw an LAPD medallion on a police car. Coppola has sanded off the present references; she shows us a high school world in which institutions and rituals haven't changed. She sums up the forlornness, the late nights and morning dawdling; she recalls the sad little rituals, like how the last lucky cigarette must be inverted in the pack.
The drawback is the usual one: a standard young-adult novel view of adults as predatory, clueless, patronizing, grotesque, Fellini-sized, tellers of shudderingly unfunny dirty jokes. It's a tight race but first prize for weirdness goes to Val Kilmer as Grace's creep of a stepfather, vegetating in a den of Post-it notes and half-eaten food. I'd never say Kilmer was as good as Brando, but he's certainly getting Brando's Hereford-sized beefiness. (Shave his head and he'd look like Kurtz.)
Ultimately, Palo Alto does an excellent job of capturing the adolescent point of view, the constant longing for some other place, some other time—some hope of escape. Coppola visualizes an open end: Teddy and Fred's road taking a final fork, a lonely nocturnal walkway versus a fast track to self-destruction. In this sensitive film, she evokes a journey it was important to travel, but one you'd never want to retread: that terrible time of waiting around, locked out of childhood and adulthood alike.
100 MIN.; R