Borrowing liberally from the likes of "Kids" and "Elephant," first-time feature director Gia Coppola's "Palo Alto" is a largely familiar portrait of teen angst, but it's also a fairly accomplished one. Loosely adapting James Franco's collection of short stories, Coppola (the 26-year-old granddaughter of Francis Ford) assembles a fairly watchable, scattershot ensemble drama carried by naturalistic performances and artful restraint. Though it lacks a cohesive means of fusing together its interlocking vignettes, "Palo Alto" effectively showcases the despair and sophomoric rebellion of teen life with a mature eye that clearly establishes a new filmmaker to watch.
The movie's mainly valuable for the discovery of its talent, and that extends beyond its director. Coppola isn't the only figure involved with the production who hails from a famous household. One of three central protagonists, conflicted stoner Teddy, is played with a mixture of frustration and confusion by newcomer Jack Kilmer, son of Val (who makes a cheeky cameo early on). Kilmer's low key smarminess clashes to great effect with the obnoxious, naughty energy of Teddy's best pal Fred, played by Nat Wolff as a conniving, attention-hungry jerk who's nevertheless oddly likable. The main cast is rounded out by the usually reliable Emma Roberts as soccer player April, a pouty outsider who falls into a dangerous romance with her older coach (Franco).
Living out their days in bland suburbia, caught between drunken party excursions and tenuous flirtations with the adult world, this trio and their various friends hail from the same culture of alienation and boredom that assailed the stars of "The Bling Ring" (directed, for whatever it's worth, by Coppola's aunt Sophia). It's not a comfortable place to live, but Coppola makes it easy to get immersed in the environment anyway, nimbly stringing together various encounters between the characters but rarely overplaying their emotions.
Teddy and Fred's exploits provide the most endearing narrative focal point: The movie begins with the drunken duo chatting about sex before Fred randomly slams his car into a wall and breaks into giggles of excitement. It's far from the last time he courts danger as a means of enlivening his drab surroundings, and later he applies his bubbly enthusiasm to the art of seduction with the promiscuous Chrissy (Olivia Crocicchia), with whom Teddy also has a fleeting sexual encounter. Though they both show early indications of addictive personalities, it's ultimately Teddy who has to face that possibility after getting busted for a drunk driving accident, while Fred manages to continue in his freewheeling ways.
The boys' similar experiences and resulting hardships draw out the sense of universality to their plight, a major theme in "Palo Alto," which is at its best during a handful of beautifully choreographed party scenes. Autumn Durald's vivid cinematography is matched by a fluid editing approach that foregrounds the atmosphere of the crowd scenes. In light of these credible sequences, Roberts' by-the-book plight suffers from more obvious elements: Her crush on her coach, who eventually asks her to babysit his kid before making a move, follows all the predictable motions and feels as if it were lifted from a weaker movie. It's symptomatic of a large problem: "Palo Alto" ultimately strains to justify all its moving parts. Though the other characters' dramas are better told, they suffer from a subdued quality that makes it difficult to get a handle on the overall emotional value of their collective plight.
Still, Coppola's screenplay imbues her young wanderers with consistent intelligence. Among the smartly written exchanges, one stands out: As Teddy and April take a breather from a house party, they argue about who's more apathetic. "I care about everything too much," she says, but isn't sure, and "Palo Alto" effectively leaves the verdict open-ended for everyone involved.
Criticwire grade: B
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Following its Telluride premiere, "Palo Alto" will next screen in Venice and Toronto. Though not a hugely commercial title, decent press and word of mouth may help it land a healthy deal with a midsize U.S. distributor.