Palo Alto, Gia Coppola’s adaption of James Franco’s short story collection, is about teenagers’ half-hearted attempts to toy with trouble - to rebel. Coppola focuses less on a doomed generation, but rather a generation that has been exposed to ‘grown up’ things without really growing up at all. It’s about the void in teenage heads and lives, and how they try to fill it
Like much of Franco’s art, the film mimics his own fitful school years, flirting with boundaries, teetering on the edge. The film focuses on four teenagers in particular, their actions poised somewhere between attention seeking and boredom: a potent mix of public intoxication, weed, car jacking and drunk driving.
I found the portrayal of ‘adults’ to be particularly powerful in both Coppola’s screenplay and Franco’s original short story collection. The film begins to capture the stinging realization that adults are not perfect; the realization which comes to all teenage narcissists sooner or later, that the adults with whom one comes into contact as a teenager are not all operating with one’s best interests at heart. All of the adults in the film are tried and found guilty of ulterior motives and wayward agendas: an art teacher babbling of his near-death experience, April’s (Emma Roberts) weed-smoking Dad (Val Kilmer) and a Mum whose concern for her daughter switches on and off as casually as a light.
In true, wickedly ironic Franco style, James plays the villain of his own creation - the sketchy school, football coach who involves himself with his vulnerable players. April’s eventual surrender to him captures the role sex plays in teenagers' lives, somewhere between self-exploration and power-play. Consumed by a bad day, April asserts herself the only way she can think of: sex. Cappola communicates this subtly, yet powerfully as she juxtaposes the maturity of the passionate act against the apparent child-like vulnerability of April, freezing the shot on her ‘days of the week’ knickers.
Trust issues ripple throughout the film, conjuring up questions perhaps a bit too existential for a weekend afternoon: can you trust anybody? Can you even trust yourself? Coppola, likely seeking inspiration from her Uncle Francis, turns to nature to convey April’s lack of trust in her school counselor- the shriveled plant on her desk, symbolic of her ability to help her students ‘grow.’
Perhaps Palo Alto struck a chord for me, as it begins to dissect the hurdles one faces in the transition from child to adult, a struggle I feel particularly familiar with as a Lower Sixth deciding which Uni to apply to.