★★★ (out of 5 stars)
Like politics (the Kennedys) or football (the Mannings), film has its own dynasty, and its current royalty is the Coppola family. The Coppolas are the only other family besides the Hustons to boast three generations of Oscar winners. The family can claim eight statues (the Hustons have four), earned by Carmine, Francis, Sofia and Nicolas Cage, out of 24 nominations. Now there is a new generation starting to wade out into the film world. Meet Gia Coppola and her film, Palo Alto.
When I ask her about growing up in a dynasty over the phone, the newest Coppolla on the scene sounds a little bit frustrated by the question. “I mean, I don’t know any other way of living,” she says. “It’s very normal. I have such an appreciation for my family and their movies. I’ve learned so much from them, just growing up on their movie sets.”
But for her debut film, Palo Alto, an angsty coming-of-age film about three troubled students living in California, Coppola did not turn to the Coppola family’s production house, American Zoetrope. Instead, she went out on her own and produced the film with James Franco’s Rabbit Bandini Productions.
Franco also stars in the movie.
“It was really important for me to do this on my own and find my own voice,” Coppola says.
Franco, who also co-stars in the film as creepy girls soccer coach Mr. B., wrote the book of short stories upon which Palo Alto is based. The stories are somewhat separate in the book, but have been combined by Coppola to form a rotisserie of angst, alienation, abuse and ennui, and a world in which bad decisions are made and drugs are used by a loosely affiliated group of friends, April (Emma Roberts), Teddy (Jack Kilmer), Fred (Nat Wolff) and Emily (Zoe Levin).
April and Teddy make up much of the film’s focus. They are mutual crushes, but because of crossed wires, neither realizes it and both look elsewhere for someone to love them back. Neither finds what they are looking for, instead encountering emotional landmines along the way.
April is the sensitive soul who puts on a nonchalant front, but who smokes and drinks because she wants to fit in. She flits from group to group searching for a comfortable niche, and she’s still searching when Mr. B begins to take an interest in her as more than just a coach.
Teddy is sensitive and childlike – in one scene, he dreams of being in a wolf suit, playing an anguished Max from Where the Wild Things Are – but he puts on a good front. He goes a few steps too far, though, when he crashes his car while drunk and flees the scene.
“James’ book is dark at times,” Coppola says. “I tried to make certain things a little hopeful, but I also knew I didn’t want to totally change it. ... That stuff does go on and life is dark sometimes.”
Coppola says the movie explores the “organic thing we all go through” where physical and hormonal changes collide, making everything seem dark and difficult.
“It feels really heavy,” she says.
It can also feel really rudderless, and this film meanders and fails to find a dramatic, compelling ending. I can counter that by reminding myself that teenagers do meander and don’t usually have dramatic endings themselves (unless they die). If being a teenager weren’t so intensely boring, it wouldn’t lead so many to drink and do drugs, just for the thrill of figuring out which is the most fun to abuse the hell out of. The fact that teenagers need something else to make themselves more interesting maybe means that films about teenagers also need something else to make them as interesting as they can be. In that sense, Palo Alto only manages to get to third base. As an audience, it’s a good time, but we keep our underwear on.
Nobody makes a perfect first film, though. To harp on the family angle again for a moment, neither Dementia 13 (directed by Francis Ford Coppola) nor The Virgin Suicides (Sofia Coppola) were perfect either. It takes a minute to learn the rules of the game and how to bend them to your will to make the picture you want to make. To distinguish yourself in the T. Rex-sized footprints of such a famous family can’t be an easy task, but on the other hand, who would bet against a Coppola?