A Review of Palo Alto, written & directed by Gia Coppola; based on the short story collection by James Franco
by REBECCA, May 26, 2014
Palo Alto is the directorial debut of Gia Coppola (Sofia’s niece), based on the authorial debut of actor James Franco, and starring Emma Roberts (Eric Roberts’ daughter; Julia Roberts’ niece) and Jack Kilmer (Val Kilmer’s son). That is to say, it can no more escape a kind of in-group latitude and indulgence than can the characters it portrays.
Franco’s collection, Palo Alto (2010), contains twelve stories, all with different first-person narrators, but which feature some of the same characters (such as April, Emma Roberts’ character). Coppola’s script is based on five of those stories—according to many reviews, the five least dramatic, as those not in evidence include murder and gang rape (a whisper of which filters into the film). As there’s little action, plot-wise, it’s the themes that tie the pieces of the film together: mainly the emotional and physical violence that accompany sex and love for the female characters, the antisocial behaviors that the male characters’ privilege makes acceptable, and all the characters’ attempts to mask boredom with mood-altering stabs at fun.
Responses to the film have been understandably mixed. I felt a bit conflicted myself coming out of the theatre. On one level, I loathed the film. The characters are all unappealing, some because they’re boring, some because they’re sexual predators, some because they’re selfish and mean. The dialogue is banal and uncreative, with nothing but a vague mutual yearning between April (Emma Roberts) and Teddy (Jack Kilmer), to suggest that these characters are anything more than attractive but superficial blanks. However, despite this—or perhaps because of it—emotionally, I found the film affecting.
We are introduced to Emily, who is called a whore throughout the film, when she confesses, during a game of Never-Have-I-Ever, that she has never been in love. For the rest of the movie, she repeatedly reaches out to boys at school and at parties, attempting to use sex to seek the love she’s never felt. In contrast, sixteen-year-old April, who “tries to be good,” is the victim of her sexually predatory soccer coach (a grinning James Franco) for whom she babysits. She’s flattered by his attentions and returns them initially, only to be confused and terrified when he confesses his love to her, their relationship suddenly elevated to a level more threatening to her than sex.
The film, that is, portrays the emotional and physical violence that accompany sex and love for these characters in no uncertain terms. What’s troubling, though, is that while the film seemed to critique this extension of rape culture, there were things that disabled the critique. The most troubling of these is the film’s singular use of voiceover, by one of the male characters (Fred), which seems to be taken directly from the book, describing how one of the characters subjects his girlfriend to a gang rape. It’s presented in the same manic, dreamy tone as the rest of the film, which places it on the same level as April staring dazedly out the car window into the California sun.
Thematically, then, the film was affecting, but Coppola’s style—dreamy pacing, close-ups of beautiful people looking forlorn, and a disjointed narrative frozen in one moment in time (which invites unavoidable comparisons with aunt Sofia’s)—refuses growth for the characters. The film’s aesthetic glorifies what it portrays by seeming content to linger forever in the suspended moment of this violence, this detachment, this adolescence. As such, I found it a truly upsetting and unsatisfying film. That isn’t to say that it had a responsibility to do something other than what it did; simply to say that I wasn’t interested in what it chose to do. According to a piece on Gia Coppola in the New York Times, James Franco actively wanted a woman to be the one to adapt Palo Alto because he thought it would “give the largely male-centered stories a more layered approach” (“Unto the Next Generation, Cinematically”). This sums up the film for me: it’s a narrative of sexual violence halfway repaired by the emotional depth Coppola lends it, but ultimately more troubling for the beautiful mask she puts on it.