Lets play a word association game. I say: high school, you say….
FEELING. FEELINGS. HIDING. SHOWING OFF. INSECURITY. DEALING. NOT DEALING.
FRIENDSHIPS. HATESHIPS. LOVESHIPS. PARTIES. FUN. NOT FUN. HEARTBREAK.EXCITEMENT.
WANTING. NEEDING. NOT GETTING.LAUGHING. CRYING. PRETENDING.
CARING. ACTING. HATING.COOL. REGRETTING. NOT COOL.
RUNNING AWAY. RUNNING TOWARDS.
EVERYTHING ALL AT ONCE.
You could go on forever, couldn’t you? I know I could.
After all, high school is all about everything being/feeling bigger, more complicated and inexplicable than anything ever again will, probably because we experience so much of it for the first time ever. Which is why it is so rare that a high school movie ever feels true. Funny? Sure. Melodramatic? Doable. Raunchy? Easy. But true? TRUE IS HARD. Because re-capturing all of that, all at once IS hard. You can’t really bottle those years. And yet, somehow those things I just rattled on are just some of the words of actions and emotions the characters populating Gia Coppola’s Palo Alto go through over the course of the 100 minutes of her directorial debut, a high school movie that actually DOES feel pretty true.
It has been 15 full years since Sofia Coppola (at the time 28) made The Virgin Suicides, a movie based on a book about teenagers that felt somehow both like a dream and the harshest reality of those years. Now, a decade and a half later, as Sofia came full circle with the most superficial movie about teenagedom she could make (2013’s Bling Ring), her niece Gia (27) adds another worthy addition to that cannon (a knowing nod to her older cousin materialized in the form of a Virgin Suicides poster in the lead character’s bedroom, a movie made around the time when these kids WERE BORN-now legitimately counting as nostalgic).
Granted, her origin material (James Franco’s short story collection of the same name) is not anywhere near as poignant as Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides (probably one of the most beautiful books ever written), but the feelings and that sense of a self-contained microcosm in which every teenager lives/is held captive in ARE all there.
The story centers on April, a good girl, whose normalcy and sanity seem like the rarest of traits both in her Northern California high school and home. She studies, she plays soccer, she babysits for her soccer coach, she goes to parties and dances and practices being cool before she goes out and actually attempts it. She also has feelings, some more complicated, some less towards a boy (Teddy) and a man (the aforementioned soccer coach Mr. B) and much like most teenage girls, doesn’t quite know how to deal with most of it.
Around her, her universe is both complicated and refreshingly non traumatic; nothing TRULY bad happens in Palo Alto. Sure, some boundaries are crossed, sure, some parents will just never get you, sure, you will do things you will later regret and certain things seem insurmountable. But it is all part of being a teenager, right? You have to learn your lessons SOMEHOW. And you’ll (hopefully) learn the fastest by making some mistakes first.
Coppola does a great job of filming all the little BIG moments in a languid, romantic manner that reflects the permanent semi-summer these kids live in. The cast she chose is near perfect. Emma Roberts, usually kind of whiny and a little brittle as an actress, is touchingly vulnerable-yet-strong, nailing those “I care but I won’t show you I care” moments we can all remember ourselves in. Jack Kilmer, Nat Wolff and Zoe Levin as her classmates bring their pretty slight roles (the stoner artist crush! the wild card! the girl that has never been in love or been loved!) a tenderness that is on occasion downright heartbreaking. And all the “adults” from James Franco as the nicely sleazy Mr. B to Chris Messina to Val Kilmer as assorted parental figures are there as clear reminders that adults are not to be trusted at this age of almost adulthood.
For all its charms though, at times, Palo Alto does feels slight, like a movie that could have easily been a short instead a full length, BUT despite that, it never feels boring. Those seemingly unnecessary little diversions, the extra camera cuts to people’s lips and eyes and hair and shoulders (all set to Dev Hynes’ hypnotic soundtrack) all add up to a palpable, if almost intrusive, intimacy Coppola wants to create between the viewer and her cast. It all feels voyeuristic because it should be, a trip inside a teenager’s head, where nothing has an explanation, it just is, bigger and more intense than it ever will be again.
Whether you love it or hate it depends on how willing you are to accept Coppola’s romantic ideals of how magical an ordinary time and space can be (I personally found myself more than ready and willing), but one thing is for sure – and it bears repeating – it never, ever feels fake. Which, in and of itself, is a victory.