Gia Coppola's Palo Alto feels like the work of a director who watched a handful of smart independent films, followed that up with all the best teenage dramas, and tried her damndest to mash the two together. From start to finish, there's very little exposition; characters are introduced and we're meant to discern their purposes, desires, reasons for being. In general, this is a kind of cinematic storytelling I find attractive. An experienced director, working from a solid script, can create their own world without clunky declarations or out-of-place comments from characters who are never so descriptive or verbose again. But in Palo Alto, the blank slates remain blank.
Even if they're meant to several as stand-ins for the audience’s past selves – and I suspect this is the case, as many reviews have highlighted the film's realism and accuracy – that doesn’t excuse saddling your viewers with a bunch of haphazard souls and expecting us to invest in them. Sure, high school was a lot of aimless wandering amidst attempts to determine who you really were, but there's not much entertainment in revisiting those moments. Strive for the deepest meaning; don't extrapolate the angst and deposit it on a screen.
Emma Roberts and Jack Kilmer (yes, son of Val) star as April and Teddy (names I immediately forgot upon stepping out of the theater), star-crossed lovers who cross paths every now and again at parties and in the hallways of their nondescript high school. James Franco, the author of the short stories upon which Palo Alto was based, plays a teacher who falls for April, or at least wants to have sex with her. One can't help but wonder if Franco's curious antics with young girls on Instagram were a sort of wildly misguided viral marketing campaign. Val himself also pops by for a few odd (in a bad way) scenes, perhaps only as a favor to the producers for casting his son.
The real star of Palo Alto, if there is one, is Nat Wolff, who plays Teddy’s friend Fred. He’s a drunken mess with a silver tongue who can’t resist bedding the most promiscuous girl in school over and over, even though they both come to realize rather quickly that it’s a mess. But even he plunges into mediocrity as the film trudges on, becoming a wild caricature without all the engaging conflict.
With a gaggle of characters who don’t quite stand out, the tone becomes the star. It's one of confusion and malaise, of struggling (without much positive reinforcement) to find your place in the world. As with most kids who grow up in well-to-do areas, their actions have very little meaning. Failures are glossed over, privileges are taken for granted. Minus a few affirmations of love, parents are barely noticeable. It feels accurate, but without merit. No one changes, nothing is learned. Again, even if the high school experience is replicated, why are we sitting through it? Is this a 100-minute therapy session, broadcast on a big screen?
Besides the stab at realism, it's hard to discern what Palo Alto is going for. It doesn't break new ground or expose teenage life in any distinct way; it's slow and deliberate but ultimately travels over the same well-trodden ground as its spiritual predecessors. Ultimately, it’s a prodding lump without a reason to exist.