April (Emma Roberts) is a young girl on the cusp of adulthood, who is struggling with her flirty relationship with a teacher, and the feelings she has for her friend Teddy (Jack Kilmer). Teddy is constantly overshadowed by his friend Fred (Nat Wolff), and goes along with his ideas for the sake of acceptance. These three people have to figure out where they belong in the world, and how their lives align together.
Palo Alto is based on a book of short stories by James Franco – who also stars in the film – specifically, a series titled April. While it seems that this story is about the choices we make as teenagers, and the relationship we form at a relatively young age, the film drifts and meanders through the tale, meaning that the story is lost is a sea of style.
The cast does well with what they are given, but none is ever really given a chance to flesh out their character beyond stereotypes. Emma Roberts makes April slightly awkward and naïve, the type of teenager who would easily fall for the affections of someone in power. James Franco never allows Mr B to be anything other than creepy; his attention on Roberts is entirely inappropriate, and the dialogue he spouts feels as though it should have been written for a 14 year old boy. Jack Kilmer does slightly better as Teddy, in fact he is the only character who seems to go through any progression at all, even if it is just deciding he doesn’t want to put up with his friend’s shenanigans any more.
The story meanders and winds, making the film a series of scenes in search of a movie, as opposed to a cohesive whole. There are interesting moments, but not enough to hold the audience’s attention, and certainly not enough to justify this being made into a film. We all know, having been there, that teenagers go through some weird stuff, but making Teddy and Fred cut down a tree doesn’t make them unusual, it just makes them jerks.
Gia Coppola seems completely bewildered in her feature debut as director, and never pulls the film into a cohesive whole, and never allows her characters to be anything other than paper-thin stereotypes. The film looks good, but this does not make it interesting or engaging in any way. As well as this, by being – and casting – those from acting dynasties (Emma Roberts, Jack Kilmer, James Franco), Gia Coppola manages to make Palo Alto a watered down curiosity, but not much else.
Palo Alto is a film that tries to encapsulate the teenage experience of girls looking for love, and boys just being jerks, but manages to be almost nothing at all. There are hints that things could develop into a coherent story, but this never happens, leaving Palo Alto to meander on screen with no real purpose.