Palo Alto

Palo Alto (2013)
★★ / ★★★★

“It’s because you’re young. You don’t know why you do things but there’s always a reason.” That quotes sums up the common thread of “Palo Alto,” based on James Franco’s collection of short stories, a film that is weak in plot and narrative drive but is saved—just barely—by the performances of its three leads: Emma Roberts, Nat Wolff, and newcomer Jack Kilmer.

It does not break any new ground when it comes to exploring teen angst and ennui. We see familiar scenes of drinking, partying, hooking up, gossiping, as well as deeply self-destructive behaviors, but the impact is lessened because the material offers very little long-range consequences. One might argue that perhaps that is the point. These are characters who are afraid of the future and who they really are. Their thinking stretches only as far as the next few hours.

For instance, when April (Roberts) is confronted by her academic counselor of the reality that her record may not be good enough to be considered “competitive” in order to get into a good university, she breaks down and asks permission to go to the restroom. Are we supposed to feel bad for her situation? Perhaps not. But look closely. Although, like her peers, she comes from a fairly affluent family, she gets no support.

It is interesting that her mother (Jacqui Getty) is always on the phone and appears to mean well when her daughter returns home. But it is a lie. The mother does not care—at least not really. If she did, her interactions with her daughter would feel more substantial, warm, genuine. The mother always asks what she can do or make for her daughter. A real mother—one that really cares—would have picked up that her child is severely unhappy. Also, consider the mother’s appearance. She looks like a joke, trashy—like one of those bimbos in the “Housewife” reality shows.

Wolff’s character, Fred, does not come into focus—which is a shame because if he had been handled correctly, he would have been the most relevant. Although his self-hatred is communicated quite clearly during the final act, for the rest of the picture, he is written too broadly—the guy who attends a lot of parties but he does not actually have fun. Fred is the loudest of the three main characters and yet he is the most underdeveloped.

The cinematography captures the lived-in quality of Palo Alto. My family lives only a few minutes away from that area and I was impressed that the picture is able to capture that atmosphere of middle-class communities with teenagers who are bored and wanting to break out of the bubble—but unknowingly destroying their chances of doing so.

Directed and based on the screenplay by Gia Coppola, “Palo Alto” is elevated by its third lead performance: Jack Kilmer playing a troubled teen named Teddy who is a natural artist but having trouble communicating what’s in his mind and heart. Kilmer is the perfect anchor between Roberts’ silence and Wolff’s unruly spirit because he plays the middle of the two extremes—without being boring. Teddy’s future may not be bright but Kilmer’s may be worthy of a spotlight if he chooses to continue taking roles that take risks but retaining the ability to hone in on what makes his characters’ stories worth looking into.

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