The tragedy of James Franco telling stories about teenagers is that he played a role—but not a creative role—in Freaks and Geeks (1999-2000), one of the most perfect and poignant depictions of adolescence in recent decades. The characters in that show were striving for transcendence, for a way to reconcile their vast dreams with their imperfect but lovably human circumstances. The characters in Palo Alto, on the other hand, are looking for the mundane, for genuine, honest, stable, reciprocal relationships that might protect them from the ever-present threats of dissipation and destruction.
That’s a stark view of the world, and it makes for a dyspeptic hundred minutes on screen. It’s a very watchable hundred minutes, though, thanks to writer/director Gia Coppola, who adapted Franco’s 2010 collection Palo Alto Stories into a single narrative. Coppola saturates the film’s color and keeps the focus tight, like Douglas Sirk filming a prescription drug commercial. Cinematographer Autumn Durald does brilliant work here, finding a distinct personality for every setting and giving Coppola’s shots such a layered effect that the film has a greater sense of depth than most movies you’re made to wear polarized lenses for.
Popping out of these shots are fine performances by the film’s cast—particularly leading actress Emma Roberts, who finds one true note after another despite having a character who’s written in monotone. Coppola’s characters emerge out of reveries to bump up against each other in bristling, confused exchanges that weirdly fascinate, even as they frustrate; shot by shot, we’re drawn into these lives, but scene by scene, we’re shut out of them.
Roberts plays April, a listless—actually, every character in this film is listless, but April is the leading listless lady—high-schooler who’s bored by the doped-up antics of her peers, to the extent that she’s a ready victim for the flattering advances of her soccer coach (Franco). She’s obviously meant to be with her classmate Teddy (Jack Kilmer), but Teddy’s under the sway of a manipulative bully of a best friend (Nat Wolff) who’s exploiting the insecurity of his distant-acquaintance-with-benefits (Zoe Levin). Will everyone figure out how to stand on their own two feet and face their futures forthrightly? Sorry, no spoilers here.
Palo Alto is suffused with references to sex, drugs, and violence, but not with the messy realities of those things. Often they’re just suggested, and when they do show up onscreen, they do so in so highly stylized a fashion that this might as well be kabuki theater. Two characters swig a bottle of vodka until it’s empty, then not only do they not die, they appear completely sober as they get into a fight that ends with the vodka bottle being smashed over someone’s head, causing only a shallow cut. Sex largely involves the display of cute underwear (for both sexes). The near-beer episode of Freaks and Geeks is seemingly worlds away from the vice-soaked lives of these characters, but that episode was actually about alcohol and what it represents; Palo Alto‘s substantive engagement with themes of risk and addiction would suffer by comparison to a Very Special Episode of an 80s sitcom.
The 80s point of reference here, though, isn’t Family Ties—or, for that matter, the 80s-set Freaks and Geeks. It’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Amy Heckerling’s 1982 cult classic that’s glimpsed here at its most infamous moment of nudity. Is Coppola trying to show how far we’ve come since the days when Carrie (1976) would open with an unapologetically pervy locker-room montage—that we’re now baring teen characters’ souls rather than their breasts—or is she just making a winking reference to her own film’s pedigree?
Fast Times at Ridgemont High is funny and flamboyant whereas Palo Alto is moody and muffled, but the two films have this in common: they give their young actors room to win our sympathies even in the context of cynical films that dump their characters at the bottom of slippery slopes. Roger Ebert’s review of Fast Times began with the sentence, “How could they do this to Jennifer Jason Leigh?” Were Ebert alive to review Palo Alto, I suspect he’d be inclined to ask the same thing about Emma Roberts.