‘Palo Alto’ balances fear with impulse

Based on the short stories of James Franco, the 2014 film “Palo Alto” offers a quartet of interwoven tales of teen angst.

Emma Roberts stars as April, a naïve virgin who engages in a dangerous flirtation with her soccer coach (Franco). Crushing on April is Teddy (newcomer Jack Kilmer), a stoner who has aspirations to paint, but a self-destructive streak that could derail his future.palo alto

Teddy’s best friend/bad influence is Fred (Nat Wolff), a loudmouth bad boy who relishes in rattling people’s cages. When Fred is not goofing off with Teddy, he is fooling around with Emily (Zoe Levin), a girl with a reputation for being easy.

“Palo Alto” functions more as a slice of teen life narrative than a coming-of-age story, as its characters never grow enough to fulfill the demands of the latter genre.

To her credit, director Gia Coppola crafts a delicate and detailed portrait of reckless youth. Lingering shots of set dressing give important clues to the characters’ inner lives. For instance, when Fred beds Emily, Coppola is careful to include shots of the childish bric-a-brac that studs her pink bedroom. This shows us that Emily may have the body and sexual drive of a woman, but emotionally she is still a kid. This speaks to the uncomfortable limbo where the lead characters find themselves.

These characters share the terrible adolescent earnestness to appear to the world unfazed and unimpressed. That perfect posturing of poser jadedness is what makes “Palo Alto” a grounded and authentic look at modern teen-dom.

This is not a romantic movie about the feeling of immortality and limitless possibility of youth. “Palo Alto” focuses on the flip side of being a teen, where confusion, a feeling of powerlessness and fear of the future shake you to your core. The film gives off this mood in waves so intense that it is contagious.

For hours after the film, I felt depressed and could not rationalize why. I then realized it was all “Palo Alto,” a movie so effective in projecting the anxieties of its heroes that I carried them home with me.

“Palo Alto” is like a rough John Hughes film to show the angst-filled teens of our generation. This indie hit is well-deserving of a watch. I have never watched a film that stayed with me for so long afterward.

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