I’ve always been incredibly jealous of the circle around the Coppola dynasty. Everyone who finds a way in, from Thomas Mars of the band Phoenix (married to Sofia Coppola) to Nic Cage (real name: Nicolas Kim Coppola) to Jason Schwartzman (Francis Ford Coppola’s nephew), seems to exist in a state of blissful artistic expression, be they actor, producer, director, writer or musician.
In fact, I once tried to draw a family tree that combined the Coppolas with those they married and worked with professionally, but it very quickly got too big to fit on A4 and I gave up once I started including people like Karen O (dated Spike Jonze, Sofia Coppola’s ex-husband) and Bill Murray (long-time collaborator of Wes Anderson and thus Jason Schwartzman), as well as touching on the outskirts of LA’s Scientologist luminaries, like Giovanni Ribisi and Beck.
Nonetheless, Sofia Coppola remains one of my favourite directors. Having exhausted her filmography and not willing to wait until whatever replaces The Little Mermaid as her next project, I turned my attention instead to Gia Coppola (Sofia and Roman Coppola’s niece; Francis Ford’s granddaughter) and her adaptation of James Franco’s collection of short stories, Palo Alto.
The film follows a group of teenagers. These are namely April (Emma Roberts), who has a brief affair with her football coach (James Franco), Teddy (played by Jack Kilmer, who is indeed Val’s son), who has a big crush on her but is a bit too shy to do anything about it, and Fred, a teen-psycho type who likes knives and is a stereotypical bad influence on Teddy.
Initial impressions are that it’s not that good a movie. Why should we care about these characters? They’re mainly just rich Californians who smoke loads of weed. Everyone looks like a member of the Strokes (yes, the Strokes are from New York, so sue me) and everyone regularly says stuff like “This party sucks”; they talk about who they would and wouldn’t fuck, and somehow there’s meant to be some comment offered on teenhood. None of the observations offered by the camera are any different to those in any other teen films, of which there are other, better examples. It’s almost like an anaemic version of Harmony Korine’s Kids.
There is also an inescapable air of Sofia-lite. It must be hard to be working in her shadow (Palo Alto even features a half-hidden Virgin Suicides poster on Teddy’s bedroom wall), and that of James Franco. April is bit of a waify character, not unlike those we have come to expect from Sofia Coppola films: astoundingly pretty but overlooked and misunderstood by the world. In one scene, she holds her hand out of the window to feel the wind rush through her fingers, filmed in slow-mo, and set to ethereal post-punk. Where have we seen this before? Just look at the still above, which could be entitled Pretty Girl Looks Pensive by Swimming Pool or simply Ennui: it could be from any Sofia Coppola movie you could care to name (except Marie Antoinette, for obvious reasons).
But despite initial misgivings, the characters grow on the viewer a lot. By the second half of the movie, it has really found its feet and there’s a whole lot more dramatic tension. Odd moments of tension don’t boil over into confrontation, but rather leave a more realistic bad aftertaste. Palo Alto morphs from a “teenagers worry about silly things” narrative into an examination of how adults in positions of influence treat young adults. Even Fred, whose character begins as something of a cliché, morphs into a more tragic figure by the end of the film, going from supporting cast to a part of the main trio.
Plus, it’s shot very nicely. There’s not too much music, which brings out a naturalism in Roberts’ performance, and when there is music, it’s composed by members of that mythical Coppola circle; by Robert Schwartzman and Coconut Records. Roberts herself is decent too, which I didn’t expect. She’s fragile, but it’s tempered with moments of decisiveness and also of real sadness that mean she doesn’t come across as whiny or annoying. She’s believable alongside Franco, too. The eternal mystery of how he can be so weirdly goofy—and kinda creepy—and yet so likeable remains unanswered but not dispelled in Palo Alto.
It’s not perfect, but it’s a good first feature directed by someone who was only about three years older than I am now. Hats off to the next big Coppola, I guess.
Postscript: Perhaps what trumps all of this is that I watched Palo Alto the day after Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising, so a film with dialogue and buildings and women in it was quite a relief. A post on a Refn film will come about one day, but it won’t be that one.