A young female director with the last name of Coppola has débuted with a movie about the pains and shallow, short-lived triumphs of youth. It is steeped in the aura of an earlier time, hazy in its recollections of formative events, and alert to the inimitable, base desires of the adolescent male. It sometimes feels as if the film itself is drunk and stoned, with its buoyant camerawork, echoic score and deliberately vertiginous sound design. Yet the year is not 1999, and the film at hand is not The Virgin Suicides; it is 2014, and the film is Palo Alto, written and directed by Gia Coppola (Sofia’s niece) from the story collection of the same name by James Franco, who also stars.
Franco is not the protagonist, but his actions motivate the plot at crucial intervals. He plays a high-school soccer coach who develops a pathetic, lust-fuelled obsession with one of the girls on his team, April (Emma Roberts), whom he conveniently hires as a babysitter. The film revolves largely around the parties she goes to and her involvement with Teddy, a would-be-dropout who seems even more aimless than most teenagers his age. He and his friends either sit around getting wasted and watching ’80s horror movies or dare each other to do stupid things like cutting down a two-hundred-year-old tree with a chainsaw.
Many of the plot points are predictable, and much of Franco’s dialogue is risibly juvenile, even for a film about dumb Californian teens. Yet the movie is worthwhile for the numerous formal departures it makes from the likes of The Virgin Suicides, upon which it and so many other films of the last decade-and-a-half have in some senses necessarily been modelled. Make no mistake, though: the influence of Sofia Coppola’s first feature remains pervasive. In one scene, Kristen Dunst’s wryly knowing smile (as it appeared on the poster) peeks out from behind a group of Polaroids that chronicle a portion of April’s young life. Happily, Palo Alto generally hews much closer in tone to the wonderfully somniferous, gauzy feel of a Gus van Sant film—particularly his so-called ‘Death’ trilogy, and 2007’s skater-kid murder-mystery Paranoid Park—as well as, less obviously, to the work of Spike Jonze. One wordless, possibly imagined scene in particular strongly recalls the two directors’ work, intelligently referencing the shared aspects of their milieux without actually quoting them.
Chris Messina and Val Kilmer have great cameos, and Olivia Crocicchia (Azazel Jacobs’ woefully over-looked Terri, from 2011) is terrific as one of a revolving cast of seemingly inessential sub-plot characters. The story returns continually to an art class that Teddy and his friend are taking with a teacher who seems like he stepped straight out of Laurel Canyon circa 1973. Devonté Hynes, who records under the moniker Blood Orange, has written a wonderfully translucent-sounding score, some of which could very well be off-cuts from his album Cupid Deluxe. One of the tracks on that album interpolates a piece by Philip Glass, and Hynes incorporates his influence heavily here, using cyclical woodwind melodies to generate an eerie undercurrent. Elsewhere, slippery choral synths and the metronome-like tick-tock of keyboard parts nod to the analogue instrumentation of Michael Andrews’ work on Donnie Darko, and to Thomas Newman’s underrated score for Less than Zero, by which Hynes must have inspired. Curiously, Gia’s aunt’s latest film, The Bling Ring, had great music too—but where it looked for something to say about the current generation and came up empty-handed, Palo Alto is content to merely observe.
As with The Virgin Suicides, the brilliance of Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko, which came just three years after Sofia Coppola’s film, was in its scarily perceptive examination of the broken psyche of a teenage boy—or in Coppola’s case, a veritable Greek chorus of teenage boys. Gia Coppola’s film doesn’t have a device—like the period setting of The Virgin Suicides, or the vivid time-travel conceit of Donnie Darko—to use as a lens through which to examine its characters, but instead strives toward a soft realism. Moreover, it sometimes feels like a portmanteau film—which is unsurprising, given that its source material is linked short stories. It is obviously set in the present, but not pointedly so, and this is where it has the most in common with van Sant’s work. His films have always felt dreamlike and nudged toward timelessness; in sharing an atmosphere with them, and in its use of lengthy, occasionally discomfiting sound bridges, Palo Alto achieves something of the same.
Palo Alto is in New Zealand cinemas now, and in Australian cinemas from Thursday 14th, through Vendetta Films.