PALO ALTO. James Franco, Emma Roberts, Jack Kilmer, Nat Wolff. Directed by Gia Coppola. 96 minutes. Rated MA15+ (Strong coarse language, sexual references and drug use).
First time writer/director Gia Goppola comes from a fantastically talented filmic family. Her grandfather is Francis Ford Coppola, her aunt is Sofia Coppola, her cousins include Nicolas Cage and Jason Schwartzman. Approaching this film initially with some hesitation that its existence may have more to do with her pedigree than her talent, I left corrected. 'Palo Alto' is an assured, mature debut, with wonderful photography and a wealth of fantastic, natural performances.
Adapted from James Franco's collection of short stories, the meandering plot follows four teens who live in the titular part of California; they are Teddy (Jack Kilmer), April (Emma Roberts), Fred (Nat Wolff) and Emily (Zoe Levin). Their tales intersect regularly and are affected by each other – Teddy and April share a romantic spark and a 'will they or won't they?' subplot, Teddy and Fred are best friends and fuel each other's self-destructive behaviour, and Emily and Fred have a difficult, shallow relationship. Their struggles are marked by abuse of drugs and alcohol, and often include a worrying promiscuity. The actions on display veer into the morally reprehensible (particularly the sexual advances of creepy soccer coach Mr B, played by James Franco), yet Coppola reserves judgment for their acts, painting them largely as the product of bored teenage lives.
The young cast is uniformly fine. Jack Kilmer (son of Val) plays Teddy with a detached grace, seemingly floating through his life. His effortless portrayal of disaffected youth is hopefully a sign of good things to come from the actor. Nat Wolff is certainly more brazen as Fred, and he owns his character's confident, almost aggressive charm with ease. Zoe Levin has a difficult role to play with Emily's questionable choices, but she manages to create a real pathos for a girl who just craves to be wanted. Going into the film with doubts about the sometimes lukewarm Emma Roberts, I was assuaged by her career best performance. She carries the film with a quiet, shy presence, and the audience is carried along with her self-discovery.
The work behind the camera of cinematographer Autumn Durald is stunning. Her magnificent experimentation with focus and different levels of light create crisp and fresh images. Between Durald and Coppola, the choices of framing manage to create a vision of the oft-filmed Palo Alto which feels very unfamiliar, and sometimes achingly beautiful. The work of costume designer Courtney Hoffman ought to be mentioned also, which I feel is not usually notable in films of this ilk. I was struck by how genuine the cast looked and felt in their outfits, which reflected also a real knowledge of what teenagers tend to wear today. The song choices throughout are also strong, and blend smoothly into the images on screen.
Gia Coppala has crafted a good film which manages to accurately envision the lives of the young and comfortable. Her script is moving and sometimes gently laugh out loud. She has coaxed a handful of compelling performances from a surprising cast, and has gathered a strong team together behind the scenes. She has marked herself out as a director to watch. And at only 27 years of age, she has plenty of time to grow out of her family shadow. I look forward to watching it happen.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out August 14.