For many, Palo Alto, the international technology hub nestled in the hills of Northern California, connotes little more than Zuckerberg-ized jargon: applications, virginal coders, ideation, the new Wall Street. It owns a distinctive attitude, one that creates “benefit” for a select few while wearing wrinkled denim to work. But this misses entirely what 99.9% of Palo Alto residents, teens and grown-ups alike, yearn for, struggle with, and are comforted by. Rookie director Gia Coppola takes what James Franco started in his short story collection and crafts a beautiful picture in “Palo Alto” that asks the hard questions about youth and adulthood — and how they’re both equally fucked.
High-schooler April (Emma Roberts, “Adult World”) is a hot virgin adored by her wink-winky varsity soccer coach (James Franco, “This Is the End”). Her virgin-ness is apparent in the way she, every day after practice, strips down to a light blouse and bra and fabricates dialogue with boys (or her soccer coach). Her dysfunctional family doesn’t help her anxiety. Her mom is a “cool mom”, one that’s dumb and fake-titted and fake-everything else. Her stepdad (Val Kilmer, “Standing Up”) smokes a lot of pot and rewrites April’s English papers that “need some work.” Through it all, April’s affinity for a boy her own age never wanes.
Teddy (first-timer Jack Kilmer), conversely, is not a virgin but is challenged in other departments: discipline, getting high, and hanging out with his best friend-worst influence Fred (Nat Wolff, “Admission”). Fred tries “so hard to seem crazy,” according to Teddy, yet manages to rope in Teddy whenever naughty shit happens. Akin to April, Teddy’s divorcee mom has a store-bought body and a narrow vernacular while his prepubescent little sister is already experimenting with stripper-height heels. Aren’t we all just fucked? In any case, April and Teddy share a subtle desire to glow positively in this superficial abyss of hormones, slut-shame, and existential confusion.
The film wins many times over. Its naturalistic dialogue (Fred: “Fuck ‘good.’ Live a dangerous life.”), its quirks (April and her coach’s son throw on animal masks before watching a movie), and its of-the-moment feel. Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers” captured this millennial moment well, but in a hedonistic context. “Palo Alto” seeks this same millennial truth but by way of suburban life devoid of any idealism.
During a bedroom sex scene, the lens focuses on the angelic glass menagerie from a girl’s childhood instead of sweaty flesh. Millennials, spoiled and numbed by technology, are so quick to “adopt” adulthood that they blindly enter worlds darker than expected. Coppola reassures us, adolescence nor adulthood is the final destination. In fact, being present might be your best bet.
The ace performances make the film a real treat. Franco is very creepy, Roberts’s vulnerability shines, both Kilmers emote compellingly stoic personas and even up-and-comer Zoe Levin (“The Way Way Back”) evolves and matures wonderfully throughout.
It’s nice and comfy to think that these multimillionaires out in Palo Alto have cute, cookie-cutter families, too. As the sage says: more money, more problems.