Written and directed by Gia Coppola, "Palo Alto" is adapted from a collection of short stories by James Franco and conjures a delicate, very specific sense of middle-class adolescence, the indeterminate, nascent feelings of the teenage years. Small moments can feel epic in scale, such as when a boy almost sending a girl a text message is an emotional turning point.
Revolving around a small group of high school kids in a suburban anywhere, the film follows shy April (Emma Roberts), who falls into a secret affair with her soccer coach (Franco) as drifting Teddy (Jack Kilmer) pines for her from a distance. They bounce aimlessly through a string of uneventful days at school and parties at once debauched but tedious at night.
Franco's stories were all written in a flat first person but from alternating points of view so that from one to the other it could be difficult to tell whose story was being told, as the characters were all enveloped in the same fog of disaffection and internal malaise. Coppola adapts a strategy of similarly decentralized storytelling, such that no character is really the protagonist, which makes room for assorted one-off scenes and allows characters such as Teddy's reckless friend Fred (Nat Wolff in a dead-on performance as an annoying kid no one likes but everyone tolerates) to wander in and out of the story. It also makes the film feel purposefully unformed, slight.
The film's real discovery may in fact be the debut of Kilmer, son of Val Kilmer and Joanne Whalley. (His father appears in a small role as Roberts' stoner stepdad.) Among the best moments are the few scenes young Kilmer has with Roberts, the two interacting with a beguiling natural awkwardness, unsure of each other but also of whatever feelings are happening inside themselves.
The movie's sharpest scene — along with a monologue recounting a death dream delivered by Don Novello, the onetime Father Guido Sarducci, as an art teacher — is one in which Jack Kilmer sits alone on a couch with Chris Messina, playing Fred's dad, as the two get into a strange vibe-y interaction of misread intentions and druggy discombobulation. For all his ease on-screen, it is hard to tell if Kilmer is just being himself or actually performing, whether this is the start of a promising career or an intriguing one-off.
And the same may be true of the 27-year-old Coppola as well, in the sense that "Palo Alto" feels like it needs the subtitle "notes for further study."
In a short film she made on the making of her grandfather Francis Ford Coppola's recent "Twixt," Coppola acknowledged she didn't really know what she wanted to do when she finished college, so there is a sense that with "Palo Alto" she is just trying out the family business. Adding to the familial air, Coppola's mother, Jacqui Getty, plays Roberts' mom, there's a voice-over by Francis, an appearance by Talia Shire, music by Robert Coppola Schwartzman, and a poster for Sofia Coppola's "The Virgin Suicides" hangs from a bedroom wall.
This sort of growing up in public requires a bravery of its own, and a similar sense of emotional openness and revelation courses through the film. With "Palo Alto" Coppola transforms weakness into strength, vulnerability into armor.