High school is a confusing time for everyone, as most students are learning about who they really are and who the people around them really are. Hormones are always raging, as love and sex are on the mind of every student, whether or not they’d actually admit it. Students feel lonely and isolated and that’s when partying and bad decisions seem to take control of some of their lives. There’s never really one reason that high schooler’s do what they do and that’s always been something that’s hard to accept. People always want an explanation, but sometimes we can’t give one because we don’t know why we do certain things. Sometimes it’s to impress friends or possible romantic interests and sometimes it’s to rebel. No matter what, all high schooler’s are the same in so many ways, yet they all believe themselves to be different.
In the tech-booming city of Palo Alto, parents are practically absent from their children’s lives and white privileged students have everything they could want and nothing at all to do. The high schooler’s are off at parties, smoking and drinking their young nights away. April (Emma Roberts) is one of the more shy students, who’s also one of her school’s star soccer players. Her coach, Mr. B (James Franco), encourages her each day and even goes beyond encouragement by having her babysit his kid and telling her about his dating life. It’s clear that there is some attraction between the two of them, but their age difference and other boys make things difficult for April. While her friends push for her to get with the hot soccer coach, April’s eyes also lie on another, much younger boy.
Teddy (Jack Kilmer), a troubled young man, has eyes for April, but never does anything about it. He gets involved with the wrong crowds to fit in and he does a lot of questionable things for no reason. Often times, he’s hanging around his best friend Fred (Nat Wolff), who’s more trouble than he’s worth. Fred is a self-destructive kid who channels his inner feelings through rage and general mischief. Fred has his own romantic conquests to worry about, as he strings along Emily (Zoe Levin) for her readiness to sexually please him. However, Emily is just looking to be loved and goes about it all the wrong ways. All these people and their stories overlap in a place where almost anything is possible. Their high school lives are confusing and wildly different, but they all exhibit similar traits that are attributed to high schooler’s all around the world.
Palo Alto goes a few steps beyond the line that tries to define teenage films. Rather than compromising on swear words and bad situations, the film fully embraces them as fact and uses them without remorse. This aspect, combined with a knockout cast that nails being a teenager on the head, creates a realistic atmosphere that’s relatable for anyone currently in High School, or once was. You know these people and you may even be like some of these people. You know the situations and the though processes. It’s rare to find a film that captures those four years so well.
Emma Roberts and Jack Kilmer standout the most in this film, as their fragile and almost-clueless depictions of teenagers transcends acting. Roberts brings a shy and sensitive younger girl who’s nothing too special. Her family life is wacky and Teddy is too shy to talk to her. The girls make fun of her innocent nature and she retaliates with smoking and drinking. Her moments with Franco are so genuine that it’s almost shocking. You can see the internal conflict on her face, but she still gives into temptation and the idea of love. Kilmer, on the other hand, plays a more tense teenager who accepts the fact that he doesn’t understand his own decision-making. He’s influenced by whomever he’s with and he just wants to fit in. His emotional reactions to certain situations are true of how younger guys act and his want to misbehave and go against love and society is a familiar reaction too. He knows that he cares for people and his life, but sometimes he doesn’t see the point when things don’t go his way. Together, the two of them have an awkward chemistry that perfectly captures the reality of two almost strangers trying to find some commonalities.
As for the supporting cast, they’re just as wonderful. Franco’s soccer coach never comes off as creepy. Instead, Franco plays him with a certain charisma that’s reflective of how younger teachers interact with their students. He cracks jokes and makes fun of the other team and tries to make his soccer girls feel good about themselves. His reasoning of love for April is telling of his own loneliness and recognition of a girl who’s too kind and pure for the bad guys at school. Nat Wolff is extraordinary at portraying that one crazy person that we’ve all associated ourselves with. He’s sort-of a friend, but he’s also out of control and clearly is no good for you. Despite all his irrational decisions and the way he treats people, you can’t help but laugh and smile with him during certain moments. His character is so perplexing and complicated and Wolff plays him a manner that lets you see everything that’s really going on inside his head. Levin, who no-doubt has the smallest role, accomplishes wonders with her longing for love and willingness to do whatever it takes to get someone to be with and care for her. She consistently puts herself in sexual situations in an effort to get a guy to be interested in her and she doesn’t get why they don’t stick around afterward. Her complex chemistry with Wolff is amazing, but also tough to watch at times.
Gia Coppola, niece of Sophia and granddaughter of Francis, has done something extraordinary with Franco’s collection of short stories. As a first time director and writer, she captures the most intimate moments in a High Schooler’s life and her characters’ dialougue and interactions capture the essence of your average teenager. The unexplained feelings, the angst, the perceptions of love, and the parties are all a party of reality. Coppola, who’s only 27, offers up an adult and adolescent view of that period of time and it’s very intriguing to watch her story unfold. There are in the moment choices that seem childlike, but that actually happens. The adults and their choices seem childish at times, but they also don’t always make sense right away. Although the film is set in Palo Alto, it feels like it could have taken place in any town.
The whole look-and-feel of this film nearly puts you into a trance. The blend of colors and the filming locations all create a vibrant world that fits for the characters you encounter. The tracking shots and closeups provide detail into the mind of the characters and environment they inhabit. The film’s original score adds yet another hypnotic layer to the whole feel of the film and it sucks you in even further. It’s the type of music that’s neither happy nor dad, which amplifies the feelings of most teenagers. They’re all caught somewhere in the middle and no song with words can accurately describe how they really feel about everything. Coppola has a very creative and stylish eye, similar to that of her Aunt’s (whom she’s certain to be compared to), but it’s her own understanding of these stories that really elevates the film and her direction.
There’s something really haunting about this film, as it’s one that I haven’t been able to forget and have been longing to see again for weeks. A friend of mine caught a screening of it while he was down in L.A. and we had a long conversation about this film and how it manages to get so much right. Whether or not we follow what these characters do exactly, we could find pieces of our unexplained selves in these characters and that doesn’t happen all that often. The characters really bring this film to life and the direction emphasizes this odd time in our lives, in ways you wouldn’t believe. It’s a truly mesmerizing experience that rarely falters and should be seen and discussed by high school students all around.
Palo Alto Trailer