Whilst the genre is suffering from saturation, Palo Alto glimmers. You’ll find these characters every bit as excitable as they are human; it’s skins meets Spring Breakers with a touch of Oslo, August 31st. It seems that directorial talent is indeed genetic.
Latest in a long line of stylish American coming of age dramas, Palo Alto marks Gia Coppola’s (granddaughter of the legendary Francis Ford Coppola) directorial début. Based on James Franco’s series of short stories following the frenetic adventures of American high schoolers. Whilst there’s no points for originality (at least as far as the plot’s concerned) the film nails the essence of adolescence, capturing the desperate confusion and the painfully awkward naivete we all look back on with grimacing faces.
Mastering that now iconic American look, with warm, light-drenched oranges and sepias, and high contrast, narrow field of view close ups, the film could be sold on its cinematography alone with its spellbinding use of light. Yet you’ll find a treasure trove of characters, thoughtful dialogue (which was a massive surprise) and awkward romance that manages to actually pluck a string, (also a massive surprise).
The pensive sequences offer us much needed respite from the mindless fun, being every bit as necessary as the partying, After all what’s a good night without the comedown? These scenes ground the characters, removing them from the party pedestal in a manner both thoughtful and sympathetic.
I’ve not spoken much about the acting up to this point, James Franco who plays perhaps the only character above the age of about 30, in a quiet performance, though essential, as his measured maturity juxtaposes with the rampant chaos outside of his football class, giving the film some scope. Emma Roberts plays the timid introvert April, whose performance probably wins the show, though it’s very much a team performance, with no lacklustre acting to speak of.
Little can be said about the plot as a cogent whole, the film plays out more like a sequence of loosely connected memories than perhaps I’d like, though this gives the film an irreverent, dreamlike quality, much like those teenage memories are in reality. If you’re looking for a carefully crafted, transcendent narrative, look elsewhere.
This dreamlike attribute carries the film through its second half, by which point we’ve largely accustomed ourselves to the chaos, Coppola manages to keep the film compelling with her gentle character development, until finally climaxing in despair and depression.
It would unfair to draw too many comparisons with the usual suspects in coming of age stuff, Coppola’s understanding sympathy creates something far more beautiful, more cerebral and most importantly more neutral, there’s nothing glorious about the way these characters are presented, but there’s shameful about it either, they’re human.