Palo Alto

Jun 18, 2014

Teens in anguish: A credible if not cliched

  start for one more Coppola.

Palo Alto

Grade: C+

Director: Gia Coppola

Screenplay: Coppola from James Franco short stories

Cast: Emma Roberts, James Franco

Rating: R

Runtime: 100 min

by John DeSando

"If you were in olden times, what would you do?" Fred (Nat Wolff)

If the ennui and aimlessness of teens, as depicted in Palo Alto, represents the upper-middle class’s decline, then we all may be in trouble. The above question is answered about the universal life of teens throughout modern times: Things will be no different, and maybe worse. Writer/Director Gia Coppola captures the disaffection and confusion of late high schoolers in an affluent suburb while she eschews the basics of good story telling, like meaningful conflict and resolution.

The tale of burb loneliness has been told since the 60’s. Yet, with cell phones to text each other, maybe these emotional wanderers are more connected and purposeful than I thought. It’s just that the story too well mirrors their purposefulness.

Palo Alto captures the lost world of drug and sex-addled seniors who indulge too much and suffer the expected consequences of excess and conscience.  April (Emma Roberts) appears to be the only virgin in the crew, a soccer player having a hackneyed illicit affair with her coach, Mr. B. (James Franco) but seemingly unrequited love for sweet artist Teddy (Jack Kilmer).The others lost in a fog of weed and useless sex like Teddy and Fred wander in the night doped up and hungry for meaning.

And that’s all, folks. Like the lost souls of the story, the film wanders among the strands of James Franco’s short stories looking for a common thread to bind the characters more than the typical stoner discursiveness and the serious limitations of suburbia.  Look for Aunt Sofia’s Bling Ring to get a better feel for true teen angst, disaffection, and lawlessness.

The best I can say is that Coppola shows the familial gift of mesmerizing compositions and lighting, promising the great patriarch Frances’s gift for powerful storytelling.  Right now, Gia Coppola gets the kids right, nails the mood, and will get the story in a few years.  

John DeSando, a Los Angeles Press Club first-place winner for National Entertainment Journalism, hosts WCBE’s It’s Movie Time and co-hosts Cinema Classics. Contact him at