In a way, the city of Palo Alto is built on the foundation of teenage tragedy. Established by Leland Stanford as a university town (and a temperance town), Palo Alto took shape to host the institution that takes its name from Stanford's namesake lad, who died at the age of 15. It's fitting, then, that James Franco's 2010 fiction book "Palo Alto Stories" and Gia Coppola's new film adaptation of the same both commemorate Palo Altan teenagers teetering between tragedy and possibility.
In spite of all that, the film "Palo Alto" universalizes its setting to an archetypal upscale suburbia, populated by disaffected white kids and their "free-range" parents (Coppola shot the film in southern California). Freely adapting Franco's stories, writer-director Coppola eschews melodrama, coaxing powerfully resonant performances from her young leads while never pushing style or content into blatant manipulations. Rather, she takes an omniscient observational tack that plays almost like a nature film about teenagers in the wild of their lives (cinematographer Autumn Cheyenne Durald abets this effect by favoring soft or natural light).
The gently rambling story mostly concerns four high schoolers seldom seen in that habitat (or, indeed, in their own homes): Teddy (Jack Kilmer, in his debut), April (Emma Roberts), Fred (Nat Wolff) and Emily (Zoe Levin). Each has emotional issues what teenager doesn't? that emerge in "small talk," which ominously turns to car accidents and suicide; impulsive acting out; fumbling mating rituals; and sex entered into and exited with equal casualness, borne of and causing confusion and frustration rather than satisfaction.
Though the arrangement remains unspoken, Teddy and Fred maintain a tentative friendship based on a vague sense of obligation: Neither would benefit from being alone, and Fred clearly needs a minder. A scarily unpredictable class clown with anger issues that may derive from childhood abuse, Fred is given to spitting spontaneous pronouncements like "(Screw) good. Live a dangerous life." His emotional claustrophobia causes collateral damage, perhaps to Teddy and certainly to Emily, who Fred recklessly seduces. For his part, Teddy winds up with a DUI that lands him a community-service stint in a children's library.
Teddy's lassitude at first appears sullen, but when he takes to the library, his tender side emerges, along with senses of purpose and self-confidence. Of course, that latent sensitivity could also be found in his stolen glances at April, the soccer player first seen taking a smoke break from practice. She babysits for her single-dad soccer coach Mr. B (Franco), whose just-old-enough, just-young-enough masculinity proves catnip to the girls on the team. In a development that unfortunately rings true to life (as much in Palo Alto as anywhere in the country), Mr. B makes advances, and April succumbs.
"Palo Alto" reeks of Coppola's heritage. Granddad Francis makes a vocal cameo, and much of the supporting cast can be linked to him, directly (Colleen Camp, Don Novello, Talia Shire and Val Kilmer) or indirectly (Jack Kilmer is Val's son). Likewise, 27-year-old Gia shows a clear influence from her Aunt Sofia, who made the similarly themed and styled "The Virgin Suicides" when she was little older than her niece is now. Still, the biggest Coppola influence comes from being a child of privilege, with all the freedom and baggage that entails.
With its somewhat dreamy feel and airy hipster rock, "Palo Alto" could be accused of being a mannered attempt to seem unmannered, but Coppola shows genuine interest in emotional detail, and it accumulates into a depth of real feeling. For all its Palo Alto stories, the film is at its best and most achingly affecting in its impression that Teddy and April would be good for each other, so good, in fact, that they could perhaps save each other from their wayward paths if they would only find the right words to say.