Palo Alto (2013) Review: Step Inside the Minds of 21st Century Teens

Emma Roberts in Palo Alto
Emma Roberts in Palo Alto

Teddy (Jack Kilmer) and Fred (Nat Wolff) sit in an empty parking lot. The lights inside their car are off, but the headlights are on. Their musings are equal parts weed-induced nonsense and teenage philosophizing. They let the THC soak into their bloodstream and make its way up to their brain, causing a pseudo intellectual, borderline interesting debate to turn into a testosterone fueled petty argument. A couple sips from the bottle and a few more puffs of smoke and soon their car follows the light…the headlights that is. Accelerating straight into the parking lot wall. A teenage boy’s triumphant scream is followed by the words “PALO ALTO” across the screen in bold lettering.

The opening scene of Gia Coppola’s debut feature, Palo Alto, based on a collection of short stories of the same name by James Franco, perfectly reflects both the mood and message of the entirety of the film. Palo Alto follows April (Emma Roberts), a pretty but reserved high school teen who likes to sneak off for a cigarette or two. Although apparently smart, she seems to have lost all motivation. Despite her “play by the rules” attitude, April gets tied up in a risky affair with her soccer coach Mr. B (James Franco), but secretly has feelings for Teddy. While April drives the plot, the more interesting characters of the film live on the periphery, floating from party to party and negotiating the more realistic yet dangerous aspects of teenage life.

Teddy is the sensitive bad-ass. He is the quintessential artsy, unconventionally attractive outsider that teenage girls (and perhaps grown women) swoon over. Played by Jack Kilmer, son of Val Kilmer who also has a cameo in the film, the character of Teddy has immense depth. Towards the beginning of the film he admits that if he got into a car accident while drunk he would flee from the scene. Even if he didn’t know whether there were serious injuries. Yet he shows surprising sensitivity in his interactions with classmate April.

He has a hard and sometimes off-putting exterior, but Teddy feels. In his first ever acting role, Jack Kilmer embodies the contradictions of teenage life: old enough to obtain independence but with the caveat of feeling dangerously invincible; still grappling with unsteady emotions but pretending like he knows the answer to every problem; making risky and rash decisions and being forced to face the consequences. Perhaps Jack plays this part so successfully because he himself is only nineteen-years-old.

In fact much of what makes Palo Alto such an honest-feeling film stems from its extraordinarily young cast and crew. Director Gia Coppola, granddaughter of famed director Francis Ford Coppola, is still in her 20s, and turned to individuals that she personally knew to fill the roles in her film. She went to grade school with Jack Kilmer and was introduced to Nat Wolff (also nineteen-years-old), who plays Fred, through friends in New York. She also knew Emma Roberts through her social circle in Los Angeles, and although out of her teenage years, Roberts has mostly played younger characters throughout her career. Unlike seasoned, well-known actors, the cast of Palo Alto feel like they have lived (or at least observed) the events of the film in the not-so-recent past. They aren’t putting on a transparent façade, which is often the case in many high school films, where the actors are closer to 30 than 15.

James Franco and Emma Roberts in Palo Alto
James Franco and Emma Roberts in Palo Alto

Because it was based on James Franco’s short stories, which do not resemble a typical three act story structure, the plot is loosely wound and mostly guided by the character of April. While some liberties are taken to string disparate elements of Franco’s stories together, the basic feeling of the writings ring true in the film. More than anything, I would call Palo Alto a character exploration, investigating the lives and struggles of upper-middle class, white American teens.

While it is true that I believe Palo Alto is a well-crafted and well-acted film, I must acknowledge a particular bias that I have, which contributes to my enjoyment of the film. I myself grew up in California in a similar neighborhood and recognize many of the characters that appear in the movie. It would be wrong not to admit that Palo Alto may not resonate as strongly with others as it did with me. Older generations could read Palo Alto as evidence of the sad downfall of today’s youth culture: driving drunk, sleeping with teachers and wreaking havoc. Individuals who do not identify with the white-washed heterosexual identities of the characters in the film may see it as typical Hollywood fare that refuses to acknowledge minority or outsider identities. All of these are valid and respectable positions to take.

At times Palo Alto felt less like taking a peek into the “in crowd” of young Hollywood than teenage Palo Alto, California. Both the director and actors come from a lineage of Hollywood elite: Jack from the Kilmer Family, Emma from the Roberts family and Gia from the Coppola family. The cherry on top is that it is based on Hollywood heartthrob James Franco’s faux-biographical short stories set in his hometown. The self-awareness of the film can be somewhat obnoxious at times, until an honest moment occurs and the viewer realizes that there is, in fact, more merit to the film. Its in-crowd reputation can easily be overlooked by its more rewarding moments.

Perhaps the most interesting and intriguing occurrences in the film occur within the plotlines of some of the most deplorable characters. Teddy’s best friend Fred is framed as the cause of many of the characters’ downfalls. Delinquency is rampant in his relationship with Teddy. Every other word that comes out of his mouth is profane. But although Fred may be every parent’s nightmare, we know him. And perhaps sympathize with him. He is the kid in your high school, possibly suffering from underlying ADHD or more serious mental issues, neglected by his preoccupied stoner dad, coping in the only way that can be deemed “cool” in his environment: rebellion and substance abuse. Teddy isn’t likable. But after alienating all of his peers, he is the most tragic.

He willingly and excitedly exploits Emily (Zoe Levin) who proves to be another tragically familiar character, yet one that is often misrepresented or treated with humor and shame in most high school films. Emily is the “school slut”. But instead of being the party girl, she is somewhat withdrawn and extremely vulnerable. She looks to men for validation and thus gets taken advantage of by those willing to accept her pleas. What begins as fun ultimately ends in despair.

Of course humor also pervades Palo Alto. The most unrealistic of the plot lines is between Emma Roberts and James Franco, who plays April’s pervy soccer coach. Roberts’ portrayal of April is by far the most safe in the film, but she proves to be a strong anchor to move the plot forward, and a safe identification point for viewers that hesitate to identify with the more flawed (and realistic) characters in the film.

In the end, the opening scene is truly echoed in the overall message of the film. Kids are kids. They screw around and screw up. But when attempting to maneuver this in-between world of childhood and adulthood, it is easy to “follow the light” in the wrong direction.


What do you think? Leave a comment.

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California transplant living in New York City. MASTER at studying cinema (thanks NYU!) Obsessive about all things film and television. Kubrick+Malick+Fincher = LIFE
Edited by Austin.

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  1. Mayberry

    What’s more, having seen one or two of his shorts and watched many of his movies, is that he’s actually very good.

  2. In a modern age where Hollywood A listers are greater dullards then your average pub drunk id like to doff my proverbial cap to Mr Franco. Success or not, i loved him in Milk, as well as Freaks and Geeks.

  3. ValFerrell

    Sounds awesome. Can’t wait to see for myself. Critics can be right on but rarely resonate with my own experience of a movie.

  4. I saw it at the premiere at Tribecca and I completely agree with you on it. Well done! 

  5. I really want to see this film so much!

  6. S. Granger

    I missed the chance to go to TIFF this year, I went in 2011 & 2012, but I’ll try to go next year. And yeah, I’m super pumped for this movie.

  7. I live in Palo Alto. I haven’t seen the movie but it seems from the trailer that a lot of the aspects of living here were left out. It looks like an ordinary town, but everyone is filthy rich. I hear conversations at school about people’s new yachts and how many houses or credit cards they have. If your not a multimillionaire, you probably don’t live here.

  8. sounds like The Bling Ring.

  9. When will Emma Roberts stop ruining the film/TV industry (and my life)

    • I think she always has the same role for most of movies she has played. Kind of boring to see her again, with the same expression, if you get what I mean. But it doesn’t mean I don’t like her. I just want to see her in different role with new expression, maybe. so far she did well. 

  10. I already want to see this due to the fact James Franco is in it – after seeing Nat Wolff’s name, I wanna see it even more.

  11. I’m really looking forward to seeing this film!!! I love James Franco so much, and all his books!

  12. Wow I’m going to have to look up and watch this movie! Sounds interesting !

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