“Palo Alto” (opening at the Varsity in Davis) is based on the short-story collection of the same name by James Franco, but nothing in the story feels specific to that city, or emblematic of it. It depicts high school kids, but they could be from anywhere. They’re not too rich, and they’re not too poor. They’re just a little well-off, but in the way that most people are in movies. You can’t have a good party scene in a house with less than a dozen rooms.
Directed and adapted by Gia Coppola, the granddaughter of Francis, the movie follows a number of teenagers, but focuses mainly on April, a shy virgin – whose virginity does not prevent her from smoking constantly and drinking – and Teddy (Jack Kilmer), who is basically a nice kid but has a really awful friend. The friend, Fred (Nat Wolff), is thoughtless and cruel, perhaps a sociopath, and he keeps leading the hapless Teddy into trouble.
Coppola is only 27, which is young enough not just to remember being a teenager, but to remember what it felt like, and there is nothing romantic about those years in Coppola’s conception. The parties look dreary, frantic but joyless, as though the kids were all engaged in some grim effort to take the edge off all their unused energy and unassailable good health with drugs and alcohol. They’re like puppies in a steamer trunk, colliding with each other until they collapse. And self-abuse is the only activity available.
Franco himself has the main adult role, as the charming, good-looking soccer coach who has a nice rapport with April, but maybe too nice. Franco’s wild-eyed smile is becoming even less reassuring than Jack Nicholson’s these days, and without the humor.
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Nat Wolff brings a weird edginess to all his scenes as Fred and reminds us just how far confident aggression can get you in high school. His scenes with Zoe Levin, who plays the loosest girl in town, are downright painful – the spectacle of watching someone giving something away in the hope of getting something in return, something that just isn’t there, that doesn’t even exist. As a study of how awful it can be to be a teenager, “Palo Alto” has its strengths.
But the movie’s truthfulness and accuracy can only get it halfway there. To really make viewers want to go back to high school and sit quietly for the whole running time, something else is needed – a spark of life, some special insight, a gripping story line, a compelling character – in other words, something we don’t already know.
But nothing like that is there.
Instead, “Palo Alto” is something to watch and afterward say, “Yes, high school is something like that, isn’t it?” That makes this film almost but not quite worth the investment.