Nepotism is common practice in Hollywood. It’s hard not to initially think that whenever a new member of the famed Coppola clan lands a major gig. Even though knowing the right people opens the door, it’s ultimately the talent that gets you long term success. With one of the more iconic last names names in show business, writer/director Gia Coppola’s feature debut, Palo Alto is a stunningly honest tale of the high school angst and the uncertainty of life on the outside of it.
Based on a book of short stories written by actor James Franco (who also has a minor supporting role in the film), the film focuses on the lives and experiences of a trip of teenagers (Emma Roberts, Jack Kilmer and Nat Wolff) living in the titular California town while they try to determine who they are and what they want to do with the rest of their lives. It’s simple stuff, but filled with complex emotions. You know, like real life.
This is easily the strongest most self assured directorial debut that I’ve seen in quite some time. Working from nuanced and intelligent source material, Coppola delivers a thematically and dramatically rich tapestry of teenage life. She adapts Franco’s short stories with an earnest and genuine tone that never comes across as being condescending to the teenage experience. She weaves through these suburban streets with an ethereal calmness. These characters, situations, and settings are so laid bare that it’s almost chilling. Nothing feels contrived or forced, and with an eye for some lovely visuals it unfolds as a well lived in slice of life.
Roberts, Kilmer and Wolff spearhead tes story quite well. Roberts shows a growing ability to command the screen. Newcomer Kilmer (son of Val, who has a great cameo) delivers a nuanced performance of a troubled young man looking to find himself. Wolff gleefully embraces the wild nature of a young man who hasn’t found anything to care about. Franco even gets a few nice moments as a gym teacher and soccer coach who finds himself being ever so subtlety inappropriate with his kids.
These people exist in every suburb and even in every high school, and thanks to Coppola’s smart adaptation of Franco’s material, there’s a magnetic vibrancy and a palpable sense of desperation. They don’t know what’s coming yet in their lives, and they’re only comfortable in the moment. It perfectly captures what’s so beautiful and terrifying about growing up.
We might have seen individual stories like these before, but past versions haven’t quite rung as genuine as this one. It makes for an amazing feature film debut that makes me excited for whatever story Coppola wants to tell audiences next.