Teenagers, for the most part, don’t know who the fuck they are. Although you can usually walk into any high school and ID the attention-seekers, party people, nerds, and loners, they’re probably all self-doubting and just want to blend in. Sometimes real individuality surfaces in one of them, making her miserable, but she’s too uncertain to speak out when she realizes that her friends are all assholes. Wait a while and watch all of their backbones come and go.
So when a film like writer-director Gia Coppola’s Palo Alto (adapted from a book of short stories by James Franco) centers on the secret lives of American teens, how can you differentiate between wavering but realistically drawn young characters and bad writing? Coppola, Sofia’s niece and a millennial herself, makes a stronger case for the latter in her debut, with randomness and lopsided storytelling overpowering moments of authenticity.
Teddy (Val’s son Jack Kilmer, though he looks more like Beck Jr.) is one of two main California kids facing a prequarterlife crisis. The other is Teddy’s classmate, April (Emma Roberts). Both are smart, introspective types—you can tell by the amount of time they spend lost in a vacant stare—and are silently crushing on each other. Teddy, though, is regularly pulled into trouble by his obnoxious, idiotic best friend, Fred (Nat Wolff), while April is mocked as the last virgin standing and hesitantly welcomes the attention of her soccer coach, Mr. B (Franco). Everyone’s parents are largely absent, though Coppola threw a bone to Val Kilmer, giving him a couple of scenes as April’s pothead stepfather.
These wannabe adults drink, smoke, get high, and have sex with their diversity-free frenemies. Coppola occasionally leans too heavily on shots of the pinkness of the girls’ rooms or the childish things the teens have yet to put away. Yes, they act too grown, too soon. It is stomach-sinking to witness a few interactions that are universally painful, like a young guy outgrowing his friend’s stupidity (but sticking around anyway) or a pretty blonde impulsively sleeping with a jackass and getting a mumble and “Peace out” when she asks, “Are you gonna call me?” And though many scenes play out just as you expect them to, the script thankfully cuts others before the cliché, just when you’re thinking, “Oh God no, please don’t.”
The 23-year-old Roberts can now play a precocious high schooler in her sleep, but she doesn’t stand out as too old for the role. Kilmer is the one you want to watch more closely, though, both for his fresh presence and ability to navigate Teddy’s maturation, even if Coppola asks him to swing between boy and man a little too often. Other misguided moves include introducing a character in the final scenes (really, who does that?) and employing a confusing, out-of-nowhere voiceover that sounds like Fred bragging about a gangbang when he’s onscreen with his go-to hit-and-run. The age-inappropriate relationship between Franco and Roberts’ characters has gotten Palo Alto the most attention in wake of his alleged publicity stu—I mean, attempt to pick up a 17-year-old girl this past April. But the film will probably be extinguished as quickly as the scandal, with both ending up an asterisk on the trying-too-hard self-styled Renaissance man’s résumé.