Combustible Celluloid
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With: Emma Roberts, Jack Kilmer, Nat Wolff, Olivia Crocicchia, Claudia Levy, James Franco, Val Kilmer, Jacqui Getty, Andrew Lutheran, Bo Mitchell, Bailey Coppola, Zoe Levin, Brenden Taylo, Colleen Camp, Don Novello, Talia Shire
Written by: Gia Coppola, based on stories by James Franco
Directed by: Gia Coppola
MPAA Rating: R for strong sexual content, drug and alcohol use, and pervasive language - all involving teens
Running Time: 100
Date: 05/16/2014

Palo Alto (2014)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)


By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The Coppola family has sent another filmmaker out into the world. In addition to Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather), Eleanor (who shoots behind-the-scenes footage on her family's films), Sofia (Lost in Translation), Roman (CQ), as well as Talia Shire, Nicolas Cage, and Jason Schwartzman, we now have Gia Coppola. Judging from her debut feature, Palo Alto, she definitely has some kind of special gene.

Currently 27, Ms. Coppola is the granddaughter of Francis and Eleanor. Her father was Gian-Carlo Coppola, who died in a tragic boating accident before Gia was ever born. Her mother is Jacqui de la Fontaine, who has worked as a costume designer, and has a role in Palo Alto.

But aside from the family connections, Ms. Coppola broke into the filmmaking game thanks to James Franco, who gave her his collection of short stories -- also called Palo Alto -- and suggested that she might be the one to direct a feature film, based on her photographs. He gave her some guidance and tips, and she cast him as the girls' high school soccer coach Mr. B, which allowed him to be on set in case she needed any more help.

Based on about five of the stories in the collection, the movie centers around a handful of lost high school kids. April (Emma Roberts) is the good girl. She has a reputation for being a virgin, does well in school, plays on the soccer team, and is generally well-liked. Her mom pays attention to her, praising her, telling her she loves her, serving her breakfast, but it's also a little absent-minded, as if half of the mother's attention were elsewhere. April also has a spaced-out pothead (Val Kilmer) for a stepfather; as a writer, he's interested in re-shaping April's school papers to suit him.

So it's not too hard to believe that April is still seeking something, and she believes she finds it when her coach Mr. B -- a single dad for whom she also babysits -- begins expressing affection for her.

We also meet best friends Teddy (Jack Kilmer) and Fred (Nat Wolff). The movie begins as they sit in a car in an empty parking lot, smoking pot and trying to figure out how they would rule the world when the half-crazy Fred suddenly decides to lurch the car forward into a brick wall. Fred is forever pushing people's buttons, getting into fights, and testing his limits. He pursues the pretty blonde Chrissy (Olivia Crocicchia), who has a reputation as a "loose girl." It's not long before Fred confirms this; his cocky, self-centered personality probably seems to her like confidence and self-assurance.

Meanwhile, at a party, Teddy and Fred drink too much. Teddy tries to drive home and crashes into another car. No one is hurt, but Teddy must do community service at the children's library. (Francis' voice is heard on the soundtrack as the judge that lays down this sentence.) Teddy begins to like working at the library, and we see that he could probably stay on course very easily if not for Fred's volatile influence. For example, Teddy likes April, but can't ever seem to get a moment with her alone.

If Ms. Coppola takes after any of her relatives, it's her aunt Sofia, and certainly Sofia's The Virgin Suicides is one of the movies that Ms. Coppola studied in preparation for making Palo Alto (a poster for The Virgin Suicides also hangs in April's bedroom). The setting is realistic, but the rhythms and tones are slower, dreamier, allowing for moments of observation, for the gaze to rest on some object or space that can help deepen the emotions of a scene.

Perhaps Franco was onto something when he chose a young filmmaker to flesh out his characters. Unlike most movies about teens, the characters in Palo Alto are not types. They're not necessarily supposed to represent the problems of youth today. They're simply people. They're lost and confused and unsatisfied, and they lack the experience to understand why, or to know what to do next. Ms. Coppola shows them a great deal of sympathy and understanding, even Fred, who is very simply in a great deal of pain. She sees not only their suffering of these characters, but also their beauty.

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