Gia Coppola bears a heavy burden – that of her surname. Coming from an impressive line of filmmakers (grandpa is Francis Ford and auntie is Sofia), Gia has taken up the challenge and has done a pretty fine job with her teenage rights of passage movie, Palo Alto.
The film, based on a James Franco short story, focuses on a group of Californian high-school teens and in this it has something in common with her aunt’s The Bling Ring. However, these are your average teens, interested in sex and partying, but also on the cusp of adulthood and making their first important choices. The two main figures are April (Emma Roberts) and Teddy (Jack Kilmer), both very sweet and obviously interested in each other, but neither has the courage to make a move. Teddy’s best friend Fred (Nat Wolff) is a firecracker, always causing trouble, and around him there is a sense of impending danger or disaster. Another classmate, Emily (Zoe Levin), has a rep as the school slut. We follow these characters around as they get drunk, get high and get themselves into all kinds of trouble.
April is on the soccer team and her coach is Mr B (James Franco). Why any school would employ a heterosexual demigod to coach a bunch of horny teenage girls would be asking for trouble. In fact, April is Mr B’s babysitter and it is clear that their relationship is about to take a new turn. Mr B moans about bad dates, offers to help April with her homework and finally charms his way into her virgin pants. Meanwhile Emily is adding notches to her bedpost. In a chilling voiceover we hear Fred talking about the boys queuing up to have sex with her, the evening organised by this teen pimp. Fred and Teddy drink and drive, get into accidents (leading to Teddy doing community service) and chop down a tree. Teddy seems unable to extricate himself from Fred’s grip and it is fascinating to see how Fred manages to hold such sway over this essentially sweet boy.
Coppola has managed to capture teenage life very effectively. The slutty girls on the soccer team are particularly entertaining and engaging. Fred’s character is a little too out there but April and Teddy give nuanced performances as the would-be sweethearts. Jack’s dad Val Kilmer has an entertaining cameo as April’s pot-smoking stepfather. Yet it is Emily who is provides the pathos: playing a truth game at the party, participants have to drink if they have done something mentioned by another participant (drinkers have kissed an uncle, given blow jobs during recess at school, etc) but Emily’s confession is “I’ve never been in love” and then takes a swig from her bottle. Her room is a fluffy pink haven, tarnished by Fred’s presence in it. His perfunctory farewell after they have sex in her room strips away another layer of her innocence.
This is an accomplished film that does not condescend to teenagers. Coppola may not be giving us anything new here, but she has put together a fine cast and dealt delicately with issues such as Mr B’s seduction of April and Emily’s descent into the sexual vortex that she has fallen into in her misguided search for love. There is a sense at the beginning that things may not end well for someone by the end of the film, but the lasting impression is one of hope for at least some of them.