"Palo Alto": Languorous teens rebel, sort of
Will movies such as Palo Alto - disaffected youth, drinking, toking, sexing, texting, crashing cars - feel as dated 60 years from now as Rebel Without a Cause does today?
That's not to say that Nicholas Ray's 1955 teen-angst melodrama with James Dean and Natalie Wood, the Griffith Park Observatory, and a "chickie run" to doom doesn't still have something to impart about alienation, the chasm between kids and grown-ups, the struggles with peer pressure and getting your hair, and your cigarettes, looking just right. But even with Dean's intense, twitchy cool, it's hard getting past the benign "menace" of the gangs, the corny out-of-touchness of the parentals, the stodgy morality of it all.
In Palo Alto, a first film by photographer and commercial director Gia Coppola (Francis' granddaughter), the high-schoolers smoke weed, binge on booze, throw up, and pair off in houses where the moms and dads are forever out of town. And because they are teenagers and have money, cars, and clothes, they are miserable and misunderstood.
Adapted from a collection of short stories by that 21st century renaissance man, James Franco, Palo Alto's James Dean and Natalie Wood are Jack Kilmer and Emma Roberts, both compelling as the JanSport-toting sensitive souls Teddy and April. He's smart, artistic, and plucks a guitar. His best friend is the smirky and manic Fred (Nat Wolff). No good will come of their alliance.
April is quiet and moody, and she and Teddy eye each other with hopeful simpatico. But the classmates hardly know each other, and it's easier for him to go off with some other girl, and for her to go off with Mr. B (Franco), her soccer coach. She's Mr. B's babysitter, but she's also moony over the guy. He doesn't talk down to her; he's a dream. His pep talk to the team before a big game with rivals: "You've got these bitches!"
Coppola, like her Aunt Sofia, knows how to aim a camera, frame a shot, capture the stillness in the air. Palo Alto is full of exquisite images, bathed in NoCal light, the elegant geometry of trees and sky, houses and lawns, strip malls and parking garages.
But even Gia's aunt, in The Bling Ring, gave her teen protagonists a mission: They were doing something, even if what they were doing - burglarizing homes of second-tier celebs - was a dubious enterprise. In Palo Alto, everyone's idle, adrift. Teddy gets hauled into court for drunken driving and resisting arrest, and has to do community service at a children's library. Fred, flirting with more serious criminality, targets the sexually indiscriminate Emily (a very good Zoe Levin). That's going to end badly, or sadly, too.
April does fall into an affair with her coach. He says he loves her, and she believes him, maybe.
Finally, the film circles around into something like an ending.
The rebels check their cellphones for messages.
Maybe they'll meet up.