Palo Alto (★★½)

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palo_alto_ver2Tribeca Film Festival: Another in the seemingly endless supply of projects from the unique (to say the least) mind of multi hyphenate James Franco, Palo Alto is an adaptation of Franco’s short stories, written and directed by Gio Coppola, and it’s a very mixed bag. To be fair, in the environment of the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival, it’s not a bad film at all, but when you move it to a general release, it probably will come up a bit lacking. Franco has a juicy supporting part, but the ensemble cast is led more by the likes of Emma Roberts and Nat Wolff, along with up and comer Jack Kilmer. They’re all solid, and the visuals are nice from Coppola, but the story itself thinks that it’s more explosive than it is. We’ve seen teens behaving badly in California many times before, and it’s frankly been done better. Still, there are undoubtedly things to like here and perhaps with a bit of an edit between now and its wide release, perhaps Palo Alto could be something worth recommending. For now though, it just comes up a bit short. I know that a lot of my colleagues are very fond of this one, but it didn’t quite do it for me.

The film basically follows around a group of high school teens in California as they get in and out of trouble. There are no main characters, but the plot lines with the most focus surround the virginal April (Roberts) and the mutual interest between her and her soccer coach Mr. B (Franco), the good hearted Teddy (Kilmer) and his troubled ways, and the borderline sociopathic Fred (Wolff), who is chock full of issues. They all move in and out of each other’s lives, with various other folks popping up from time to time, including April’s odd stepfather (Val Kilmer) and Fred’s dad (Chris Messina). There really aren’t any surprises to be found here, so it’s mostly about watching these characters do their thing. I just wish that they’d been given more interesting things to do. Sex and drugs in and of themselves aren’t enough.

palo-alto-2014-image03I will say that the strength of this flick is its acting, though it’s not exactly an acting showcase. Emma Roberts gets to be a little darker than she’s been previously, while Nat Wolff gets to show off just how dark he can go. On the flip side, James Franco tones down his usual weirdness, while newcomer Jack Kilmer has a low key charm that serves him well here. Roberts and Wolff have the most to do of that group, while Franco mostly is on hand because it’s an adaptation of his work. The supporting parts for the aforementioned Val Kilmer and Chris Messina are little more than cameos (though they get to play a pair of weirdos, I’ll say that), while the rest of the cast includes Colleen Camp, Olivia Crocicchia, Zoe Levin, Claudia Levy, and plenty of others. Again, it’s Roberts and Wolff that shine brightest, but they’re limited in what they can actually do.

Gio Coppola is the latest in his talented family to show off his filmmaking skills, and his direction is impressive at times. His screenwriting is still evolving, though some of that is certainly due to Franco’s short stories not exactly being treasure troves of material to work with. There’s a cut of this film that I think I could embrace, but in its current form it just appears too much like other bad kids in school on the west coast flicks that have come before it. Especially with the far too long 100 minute running time, Coppola really needed to give us more to sink our teeth into with Palo Alto in order to have made it a fully worthwhile experience.

I definitely saw better movies at Tribeca this year than Palo Alto, but I also saw worse, so it’s very much the mixed bag that I said it was. It’ll be out later on this year, specifically at the end of August, so I’m curious to see if it changes any between now and then, particularly in terms of the length. At this point though, Palo Alto leaves more than a little bit to be desired…

Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!

  • Joey Magidson

    I just wish it were more interesting than it ultimately turned out to be.

  • Cristina Lule

    “multi hyphenate James Franco”
    This made me laugh. You described it exactly as I imagined it would be. Do you think under different direction, it could have been better? Or better yet, if Franco directed it? I have yet to see any of his directing credits and am, I think understandably, loath to.

    • Joey Magidson

      It needed more of a story to tell. The film just drifts.

      The direction is fine…had Franco directed it, the movie might have been borderline incoherent. His filmmaking is still a work in progress.