The Coppola clan adds another talent to its stable: Gia, granddaughter of Francis Ford, makes a very promising writing and directing debut with this lyrical tale of West Coast adolescent angst. High schooler April (Emma Roberts) mulls the consequences of a crush on lecherous gym teacher Mr B (James Franco, author of the short-story collection that inspired the film). Teddy (Jack Kilmer), meanwhile, follows in the delinquent footsteps of his best friend, Fred (Nat Wolff), while also dealing with unrequited feelings for April.
Tensions are high, though Coppola’s languorous style, which recalls the atmospheric melancholy of her aunt Sofia’s 1999 mood piece The Virgin Suicides, tends to mute the story’s melodramatic beats. For all the bad behavior on display (teacher-student seduction, property destruction, copious drug and alcohol use), Palo Alto doesn’t play like a ticking time bomb. Instead, the film is empathetic to a fault, seeing beauty in each character’s struggle even if it can’t always sell them as flesh- and-blood human beings. Fred, especially—driving heedlessly into freeway traffic, among other transgressions—fits too neatly into the charismatic-sociopath mould favored by a certain strain of self-absorbed juvenile fiction. (Frankly, it’s all very Franco.)
Fortunately Coppola’s sensitivity is always evident, especially in the open-hearted performances she gets from Roberts and Kilmer (whose father, Val, has a funny, pot-addled cameo). Hopefully she’ll hone this raw humanism into something grander.