“What if I don’t think there’s a reason for why things happen?” Films about the high school experience try and bring their characters full circle, taking them through ups and downs that compose a coming of age as though that’s all there is. So when April asks this question of her history teacher, she tacitly recognizes that all these things that make up a teenager’s high school experience are just moments, ones that not every teen will share.
“Palo Alto” captures the more wistful moments of the high school experience. It has highs and lows that alone amount to only so much. Together however, they’re a richer yearbook in the life of a teenager. Gia Coppola’s film aims for the same high mark as “Boyhood”, making profound observations about life via all the little stuff.
Gia Coppola, who draws her visual style of candy color pastels from her aunt Sofia Coppola, finds a different narrative structure than Richard Linklater, borrowing instead from a collection of James Franco’s short stories. Rather than one overarching plot, individual characters provide glimmers of larger narratives and add up to a larger picture of this Palo Alto high school.
The most memorable of the bunch is April (Emma Roberts) a timid, good girl on the soccer team with a bad habit of smoking. Her friends openly joke that their coach Mr. B (Franco) is cute and has the hots for April, and it turns out they’re not wrong. April is torn between her naughty, yet more intellectual affair she has with her teacher and a stoner friend named Teddy (Jack Kilmer, son of Val Kilmer, who also has a brief cameo).
Teddy adores April, but he’s too dumbstruck to say anything genuine. He and his bad apple of a best friend Fred (Nat Wolff) instead follow their worst impulses and find themselves sleeping around and getting into trouble. At a party, Teddy drives home drunk, gets in a hit and run and lands himself a DUI. Fred on the other hand starts hooking up with Emily (Zoe Levin), but he’s too much of a spaz to treat her with respect, and she suffers the pain of being labeled a slut.
“Palo Alto” jumps around without a care, viewing these moments of melodrama and conflict with the same detached interest as its characters. At times Coppola uses this technique to great effect, telling stories of young love with lonely hints of melancholy. There’s a powerful montage in which all of Emily’s past sexual flings echo in her mind and come back to haunt her, and we empathize for a lost girl trying to feel something. At others, their stories become ambiguous, messy and underdeveloped in a way that you’d wish “Palo Alto” were less of a patchwork of stories.
But Coppola and Franco find depth and intrigue in even the smallest characters and moments, be they girls who seem vacuous but really are more put together than April, or adults who call Teddy an alcoholic but are really dealing with their own obesity and dependency.
“Palo Alto” finds its high notes in its hypotheticals, its simpler ideas and broader observations of the high school experience. To open the film, Fred asks Teddy what he’d be if he could travel back in time to the Middle Ages. “I’d be the fucking king,” he proclaims. The kids in “Palo Alto” are still young, and their stories are still small, but the film and their stories have the aspirations of something great.