The Washington Post

‘Palo Alto’ movie review

High-schooler April (Emma Roberts) has imagined conversations in her bedroom and babysits the son of her flirtatious soccer coach, played by James Franco. (Tribeca Film)

The movie-making Coppolas keep coming. The latest member of the famous film family to gain notice is Gia Coppola, Francis Ford Coppola’s granddaughter, and at just 27 she has written and directed her first movie. “Palo Alto” is based on short stories by James Franco, and the adaptation of this coming-of-age tale is stylishly brought to the screen, even if it feels a bit light on substance.

The movie also stars a couple of other Hollywood legacies: Emma Roberts (daughter of Eric, niece of Julia) and Jack Kilmer (son of Val, who also makes an appearance, and Joanne Whalley). The good news is that none of the three need to rely on nepotism. Each proves to be talented, which is especially notable for Kilmer given that “Palo Alto” is his first movie.

Roberts and Kilmer play April and Teddy, two high-schoolers who harbor not-so-secret crushes on each other. But before they can profess their feelings, they both make drunken decisions during a rager that drives a wedge between them. And so they go about their lives separately, and their stories are told through a series of vignettes.

We see April having imagined conversations in her bedroom and babysitting the son of her icky, flirtatious soccer coach (Franco). Teddy, meanwhile, spends his time going to art class or doing mandatory community service, thanks in part to the negative influence of his best friend, Fred (Nat Wolff). Fred is a live wire, always taking things a step (or 10) too far. He holds an ominous sway over the movie, especially when he’s preying on Emily (Zoe Levin), a sad-eyed loner who thinks promiscuity might be a path to love even though each tryst inevitably makes her feel dejected.

Like her aunt Sofia Coppola (“Lost in Translation,” “The Bling Ring”), Gia Coppola has a keen ability to create a mood. “Palo Alto” conjures the strange mix of malaise and desperation that marks adolescence.

But there are times when the director tries too hard. Shots of dolls and stuffed animals in the same room as a pair of teens doing things their parents wouldn’t approve of sends a message about the complicated opposing forces during that purgatory between childhood and adulthood. But Coppola repeats the same not-so-subtle messaging again and again until the images lose their meaning.

“Palo Alto” starts strong but runs out of momentum. Strangely, as aimless vignettes give way to bigger life events — as April and her coach begin an affair and Fred grows increasingly erratic — the movie becomes less interesting.

Even so, this is an auspicious start for Coppola. She has room to improve, but she also has a wealth of potential advisers and, even better, at 27, also has the time.

★ ★ ½

R. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains strong sexual content, nudity, drug and alcohol use and pervasive language, all involving teens.
98 minutes.

Washington-area native Stephanie Merry covers movies and pop culture for the Post.



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