Palo Alto, based on a book of related short stories of the same title, written by James Franco, is Gia Coppola’s stunning film directing debut. As the granddaughter of Francis Ford Coppola and niece of Sofia Coppola, a lot was expected from the rather young (27 year-old at the time) emerging film director. Gia was also given the task of writing the screenplay for Palo Alto for which Franco granted her complete artistic freedom when choosing how to approach the adaptation and which short stories she was going to focus on. In an interview for WeGotThisCovered.com, James Franco said that he made this decision because he wanted “the Gia Coppola kind of experience”.
The film focuses on the characters of Teddy (Jack Kilmer, son of Val Kilmer) and Fred (Nat Wolff), two young boys experimenting with drugs, going to parties, and being altogether reckless in their actions, and April (Emma Roberts), the shy, cigarette-smoking girl, who has a crush on her football coach Mr. B (James Franco). Although this sounds like the set up for the typical American high school drama, Coppola manages to present the story in way which shows the real day-to-day struggles of teenagers. Pot-head Teddy`s crush on April is shown through his struggle to talk with her, Fred’s outburst and sometimes even crazy-like behavior gives us a glimpse at his internal fluctuations, due to his troubled home situation, and April’s constant state of numbness and depression is the result of her mother’s superficial care and her step-father’s constant critique towards her. These and many other examples from the movie give us the impression that we are glimpsing into the nature of teenage life as it is today. There is no added drama and the film feels more like a documentary than a fictionalized reminiscence of James Franco’s young adult years in his home town of Palo Alto, California.
The relationship between April and Mr. B starts very subtly. In the beginning we learn that April looks after and babysits her football coach`s son whenever he goes on dates, which usually turn out to be unsuccessful for him. The young school girl is constantly teased by her team mates that Mr. B likes her, which can be seen in the way he holds his gaze on her for too long or when he pretends to not notice that she has gone to smoke during practice. After they kiss and start a relationship, he begins to ignore April and not talk to her during school under the pretext that he does not want others to suspect them. From then on the conversations between Mr. B and April begin to sound more like a dialogue between high school sweethearts than actual adults, making the coach look like an adolescent himself. Soon after that, April finds out that he has been affectionate towards another girl from her school, which makes her realize that he has been manipulating her throughout this whole time. The adult characters in the movie are presented as altogether untrustworthy and do not have that role model feel to them. This can be seen not only in Mr. B, but also in April’s mom, whose concern for her daughter extends only as far as asking her if she`s depressed and whose affection is shown through a rather anxious “I love you”.
What stands out most when thinking about the characteristics of the film is its cinematographic approach. Autumn Cheyenne Durald, the cinematographer of Palo Alto, has created a very dream like feeling to each scene. The color scheme is very soft and most of the shots are completely still, as if there is always something waiting to happen. Empty parking lots, deserted streets, shots focused only on the characters – all ways of showing how April, Fred, and Teddy will remember their teenage years.
Throughout the movie we are also constantly reminded that the characters were kids just a few years ago. Coppola achieves this by including childish mementos in some of the shots such as socks with bunny years, Emily’s (Zoe Levin) pink room and her pink bandana, April`s underwear that says “Thursday” on it, Teddy reading a children`s book while doing his community service and Fred drawing a phallic symbol in that same book. The characters seem to be stuck in a teenage limbo between childhood and adulthood, not wanting to transition in either direction. Gia Coppola has created a true representation of a whole generation through the credibility and complexity of Franco’s lost characters.