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Gia Coppola's Palo Alto explores the meaning of existence in privileged America

How does one approach a film like Palo Alto? It’s yet another cry of white American, disappointed youth making the complex transition from child to adult in the most privileged society in the world, already fully engaged with how to preoccupy themselves with first world problems to stave off the ennui that will plague them for the rest of their lives.

But then, over the top of that, it is the debut of a new Coppola name, something anyone with even the vaguest interest in cinema will recognise as exciting, and layered on that again, it is a film based on the first book by the academically carnivorous James Franco, who may or may not be one of the brightest people in the world, depending on how much you want to buy into the whole James Franco story.

This is a film whose pre-historical narrative speaks louder than its existence as an object. It is a film that is famous for being famous, and before one sees it, it garners mixed critical ambivalence. Do we compare it to the book; do we consider it in terms of realism; is it an accurate representation of teens in Palo Alto; do we watch for a hot new director; do we judge the latest effort by James Franco to catch his own shadow; do we ignore all these — can we ignore all these?

The effect of this is discombobulating. It is difficult to “know” if Palo Alto is a “good film” or not. It has problems, but only in relation to expectations, and yet it is frustratingly forgettable. Palo Alto is well performed, with a disarming subtlety and a deep inquisitive beauty that holds a rapturous engagement with the overwhelming present.

One of the film’s strengths is the absence of a future. Teens are lectured about their futures (as all teens are) and yet all but one adult is kept stringently to the margins, so that these teens orbit each other in a curious world absent of any direction or example. The one adult present is one of those Peter Pan types (portrayed by James Franco, who never has a problem making himself unpleasant – and his role here is self referential and typically clever) and all the others are conspicuous by their absence, with the exception of hovering disengaged parents or vague abstract background noise. Adults are like the night sky, out there, far removed, occasionally touched if reached for, comet-like destructive when they briefly collide with the presented reality.

However, there is a dark core in Palo Alto that is never grasped. It flits and dances with suspense, intentionally so, which keeps the audience in a trance-like state, waiting for the great event that will change them all forever, reminding us that teen years are precarious, and the slightest of decisions can herald disaster.

But it is not this darkness that feels out of reach, rather a meaninglessness permeating the heart of existence that one senses both Franco and Coppola have reached for, but that slightly eludes their grasp. Good things happen and bad things happen, and each thing that happens is part of the overriding narrative arc; through all this one traverses the political tensions that inevitably override the day-to-day, but the overwhelming meaningless of all our struggles are not even temporarily sated with sex and drugs.

Events shaping us are as meaningless as those we pass by, but while Coppola avoids any political correctness she also avoids taking the individual narratives to striking conclusions that give us a chance to think. The audience is left with several budding story and philosophical arcs, which despite the “events” of the film tend to wander off into nowhere. Particularly when dealing with the political football of teen girl/women, their changing bodies, the men these bodies attract, the semblance of power that attraction gives to girls, and the tragedies of powerlessness that accompany these realities; all powerfully presented in circular voiceover, soft focus and a muted haze that hint at a seething jeopardy, that remains a little too safe. In side-stepping her judegment, Coppola buries her point leaving the audience floundering around in the dark for something to grasp.

This is not to say that there isn’t a lot to love in Palo Alto, and breaking the film down into its parts does reveal a strong talent in Coppola, and a cleverness in James Franco’s original text that both seem underdeveloped, which is not the worst thing you can say about two “firsts”. Newcomer Jack Kilmer (son of Val) gives a breakout performance as Teddy that will undoubtedly see him move on to bigger things, and Emma Roberts is every part his equal in delivering an April whose quietly developing maturity is fresh and exciting to watch. Autumn Durald's cinematography douses the film in rich sunlight combined with muted colours, which combine delicately and present her as another promising first-time talent connected to Palo Alto. It may not be the groundbreaker in light of the weighty expectations it excites, but it is a promising start for a lot of very talented people.

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