The silhouette of Sofia Coppola looms large over the directorial debut of her niece Gia. So much so that at regular intervals throughout Palo Alto, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was actually Sofia who was sitting in the director’s chair.
The stylistic similarities between these two generations of Hollywood’s first filmmaking dynasty are almost uncanny. Like her aunt, Gia Coppola proves herself to be a filmmaker blessed with great creative flair. Juxtaposing Devonté Hynes & Robert Schwartzman’s hypnotic score with Autumn Durald’s gorgeous soft-textured compositions, Palo Alto has the luminous look of a contemporary teen fantasy.
Poorly contrasted with this mesmerizing mise-en-scene however, is a film that perceives itself to be firmly based within reality. The screenplay (also written by G. Coppola) is drawn from a collection of short stories scribed by James Franco (yes that one). The primary tale concerns a love triangle involving class virgin April (Emma Roberts), her soccer coach Mr. B (Franco), and her stoner schoolmate Teddy (Jack Kilmer). While April finds herself torn between having illicit rendezvous with Mr. B and trying to tell Teddy how she feels about him, her friends attempt to deal with the misgivings of their own adolescence. For Emily (Zoe Levin) that means offering sexual favours to any boy she meets in the hope that it will bring her companionship. Fred (Nat Wolff) meanwhile, finds his lack of emotional connections causing his behaviour to spiral ever downwards.
Given how they both very much tread the same thematic ground, Palo Alto could quite easily be seen as a companion piece to Sofia’s superb late 90s debut The Virgin Suicides. Unfortunately though, it never has enough strength to compete with that film. Despite admirable ambitions, Gia lacks the skills needed to seamlessly tether the various plot-threads together, leading to a constant lack of focus that muddles the film’s cohesion.
At one point Teddy asks Fred why he tries so hard to act crazy, a question you regularly find yourself wanting to ask the director. Coppola serves her story with lashings of heavy-handed and repetitive teen-angst. Characters spend their days sitting and reading in the hollow shells of disused lockers, and their evenings at parties drinking alcohol from a flower vase. Then, when the unnecessary quirkiness dies away, they wander around in search of hope and redemption for whatever is troubling them.
Allowing it all to remain thoroughly watchable are the performances. Roberts, in a role that’s far removed from the flashy Wild Child ones we know her for, is particularly impressive. With careful and understated conviction, she poignantly captures the anxiety that’s brought about by the mounting pressures of adolescent life. Although for all her emotive brilliance, it is the flashes of loneliness and desperation glimpsed in the eyes of Zoe Levin’s Emily that quietly breaks your heart.
Despite the film’s pitfalls, there’s still enough in Palo Alto to establish Gia Coppola as a new directorial talent worthy of watching out for. But now its time for her to step out of the shadow and into the light, to show us what she’s really capable of.
Palo Alto is out on DVD now.