Every so often a film will come along that you just really do not take to. Usually it’s directed by Michael Bay or Uwe Boll, so you have some measure of expectation going into it that it may not be a work of art. Unfortunately the film that most recently left me feeling that I had completely wasted two hours of my life was not directed by either of those two, but instead was directed by a member of one of cinema’s defining families, and that was Gia Coppola’s Palo Alto.
Palo Alto is a story about the “hard” lives of privileged white kids, living in the leafy San Francisco Bay city best known for being the home of Stanford University. The city is one of the most expensive cities in the United States and its residents are among the most educated in the country, meaning that it is hard for the ordinary person to relate to any of the troubles that these kids have. Now that in itself is not a criticism as it is hard for people living in Ireland to relate to the plight of kids living in the favalas of Rio de Janeiro or in the lower income areas of New York City, but both 2002’s City of God and 1995’s Kids manage to transcend the disconnect by being truly remarkable and engrossing films. Something Palo Alto, for all of its soft and otherworldly cinematography cannot do.
Adapted by Coppola, grand-daughter of Godfather director Francis Ford Coppola, based on James Franco’s short story collection Palo Alto, the film marks her directorial feature. Emma Roberts stars as April, notionally the film’s lead, a shy and seemingly sensitive high-school teenager whose parents shirk all parental responsibilities and who is left all alone to deal with the complexities of teenage life. Teh script gives her little to do except to be the perfect pretty girl who goes astray, but Roberts, being the fine actress that she is, manages to convince. Her performance, and that of Jack Kilmer as the artistic but self-destructive Teddy, are the two stand-outs in what is otherwise a forgettable affair. Nat Wolff as Fred is trying too hard to be the conflicted insecure cool kid. Zoe Levin cannot elevate her two-dimensional character. Val Kilmer is not even trying as April’s step-dad, whilst James Franco is very poor as lecherous teacher Mr. B. There’s nothing at all convincing about his morally corrupt character and like all of the other roles even his is underwritten.
The cinematography which is trying to bring mood manages to wash out proceeding, and Coppola never seems to be in control of tone or mood as the plot meanders and the pace dawdles. With poorly conceived characters and an incoherent plot she is badly underserved by her own script, and all of the lingering shots and soft focus in the world cannot make up for the hole at the heart of this film. If this film were a piece of music it would be an atonal composition of utter pretension and indeterminable length. As a film it’s one of the worst pieces of cinema I have seen all year.