The kids aren’t all right in Palo Alto, a cautionary tale about disaffected youth inspired by a collection of short stories written by James Franco. Brace yourself: These high schoolers are having sex (no!), smoking pot (gasp!), being bullied (the horror!), raised by distracted parents (for shame!) and preyed upon by manipulative adults (good heavens!).
Aside from the Franco connection (he also appears in the movie as a soccer coach who seduces one of his students), the picture is notable only for marking the directorial debut of Gia Coppola, granddaughter of Francis (the filmmaking gene runs deep in that family). But Gia’s style hews closer to the light and dreamy touch of her aunt Sofia (The Bling Ring, Lost in Translation): She’s strong on understated emotion and meaningful silences. Unfortunately, she’s also prone to cliché and heavy-handed symbolism. Palo Alto tones down the harshness of its source material so much that the movie has no edge left.
We get interlocking stories of April (Emma Roberts) and Teddy (Jack Kilmer, son of Val, who has a small role as well), two teenagers in love too shy to tell each other — they can barely carry a conversation when they pass each other in the hallway. Instead, they find other outlets for their romantic longing. April turns to her lecherous coach, who tells her he loves her and laments his single status. Teddy has casual sex with nameless girls and hangs out with his self-destructive buddy Fred (Nat Wolff), a skinny, hateful jerk who is so unpleasant and irritating, you can’t understand what the much gentler Teddy gets out of their friendship.
Coppola doesn’t judge her characters, even when they make the worst decisions possible. She casts vague blame on their home lives (Fred’s grating behavior is explained the instant you meet his father), but she doesn’t dwell on that aspect, opting instead to follow them through boring house parties and drunken excursions that lead to casual bits of trouble.
Palo Alto is a pale imitation of the early novels of Bret Easton Ellis, who wrote about young ennui and aimlessness from the inside out. The characters in this well-intentioned but failed drama are examples of what Ellis currently refers to as Generation Wuss — kids who would rather lie back and wallow in their victimization and hopelessness, waiting for someone to rescue them instead of doing something to change their lives. Coppola obviously cares about her protagonists, but Palo Alto makes sharing her empathy difficult.
Cast: Emma Roberts, Jack Kilmer, Nat Wolff, Zoe Levin, James Franco, Chris Messina, Keegan Allen, Val Kilmer.
Writer-director: Gia Coppola. Based on the book “Palo Alto Stories” by James Franco.
A Tribeca Film release. Running time: 98 minutes. Vulgar language, sexual situations, brief violence, drug use, adult themes. Opens June 13 in Miami-Dade only: South Beach, Aventura.