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By Anita Felicelli

About this blog: I grew up in Palo Alto and now live in Mountain View with my husband, daughter and two corgis. After about a decade grappling with the law, first as a law student at UC Berkeley and then as a litigator around the Bay Area, I left ...  (More)

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Gia Coppola's "Palo Alto" v. James Franco's "Palo Alto"

Uploaded: May 18, 2014
A year ago I was browsing Goodreads reviews, and noticed one by a co-founder of Goodreads (who I went to Gunn High School with) criticizing James Franco's collection of short stories Palo Alto. The gist of the critique was that Franco had claimed as fiction true events from all three of our adolescent lives in Palo Alto, and she didn't think he should get to take real people and put them in his stories as fiction.

Franco is 1 year younger than the Goodreads co-founder and me, and we all went to JLS at the same time before Jordan Middle School reopened. One of Franco's short stories references an Asian kid who was one of the three responsible for a bomb in the quad at Gunn High School in 1994, an event that was traumatizing to some of our classmates, but which Franco, had turned into his dramatic material. Another of the stories references a teacher who actually did sexually molest middle-school girls back in the '90s. Other true events and locations were scattered through the collection.

Unlike my former classmate, I don't particularly care about the use of real people in fiction. For me, everything that an artist comes into contact with becomes part of his or her raw material. The use of real people in fiction is nothing new, whether particular writers admit to doing so or not. What was interesting to me was that this collection was so mechanical and so lacking insight, in spite of or perhaps because it was based on true events. It is not a good collection of short stories?it is not "true" in an artistic sense, even though it is pegged onto many real events and people from Palo Alto in 1990-1996 range. In contrast, my friend Karin Spirn who graduated from Paly shortly before Franco did, wrote this essay about Palo Alto in the '90s that I find both insightful and true.

This issue of insight and authenticity is what came back to me while sitting in the audience after Gia Coppola's Palo Alto aired at the Guild. After the screening, Palo Alto Weekly film critic Peter Canavese interviewed Gia Coppola and a male lead from the film Jack Kilmer. Coppola made a remark at some point in the Q&A that she was surprised all the events in Franco's book had really happened during a short time period. She remarked that when Franco asked her to interpret his book, she was willing because the book felt very authentic to her and it involved "universal" emotions. In spite of its source material, the film has nothing to do with our Palo Alto, except insofar as teen angst and pain is "universal" as Coppola puts it.

Gia Coppola's film feels very much like a Sofia Coppola treatment of Franco's stories. It is the rare movie that transcends the book, but like the book it lacks insight. Also, perhaps because it is adapted from short stories, the film has very little plot. There are a pair of friends, quiet Teddy (Jack Kilmer) and Fred, an aggressive and slightly lunatic teenage boy. There is Coach B in another excellent creepy performance by James Franco (he was great in Spring Breakers where he was also creepy, but in a different way). The soccer coach hits on April, a "good" high school girl who can't quite articulate her own needs and desires (Emma Roberts). If I remember correctly, April in the book was sexually molested as a child and that is the reason she succumbs to the coach's advances, but that isn't a part of the movie. Teddy likes April.

The film was shot in an LA suburb and it depicts a fairly generic white suburban ennui. Like the short story collection, it strings together markers of adolescence?micro-aggressions and cruelty and drugs. In one scene Fred talks about the pressure Asian parents put on their kids (as an explanation for why an unseen Asian person commits suicide). In other scenes, adults prove themselves to be clueless or sexual predators or irresponsibly stoned. Jack Kilmer revealed in the Q&A that actor Chris Messina who plays Fred's father actually went off-script to hit on him in their scene together. I'm a fan of Messina, but it doesn't quite work to have the two most prominent adults in the story (Fred's dad and Coach B) be untrustworthy in the same exact way.

The performances, particularly those of Emma Roberts and newcomer Jack Kilmer, are moving. And Coppola's visual talents and sympathy for teen experience are evident throughout the movie. She certainly captures, in her camerawork, what it feels like to be a teenager. But the story feels episodic, not as much by design as Coppola claimed in her Q&A, but for lack of insight into cause and effect. As April notes, teenagers rarely know why they do anything. But the farther you get from adolescent experience, the more you build a coherent story?a story with cause and effect?about why your teen years were the way they were. Events that feel irrelevant to that story fall away. One of the problems with Palo Alto is also its strong suit?it is so close to the experience of adolescence and so focused on evoking and sympathizing with all the pain, it does not have a clear perspective of cause and effect.

I am evidently in the minority in my opinion about this movie's entertainment or artistic value. The people who attended this screening very much liked the movie, and identified with it and snickered at various scenes I found quite depressing. I recommend renting The Spectacular Now or The Perks of Being a Wallflower instead and waiting for this to come to DVD.

In her Q&A Coppola remarked that, even though she neither shot the movie in Palo Alto and was going for a universal feel, she left the title Palo Alto because she liked how it looked typographically. That sums up this movie-going experience for me - a lot that looks and sounds gorgeous, but which lacks insight and emotional heft.
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Posted by Mark Weiss, a resident of another community,
on May 18, 2014 at 9:54 am

A theory of dreams is that we are all the people in our dreams. In this case, for James Teddy Franco, the film you describe is like a dream in that he wrote the source material, there is a character named Teddy, his young self, and then he plays an older character, the soccer coach.

But this work is more about Hollywood where the director grew up than about Palo Alto. Grew up relatively speaking.

The other quasi-local angle is that Nat Wolff(Fred) is nephew to Tim Draper and grandson of William Draper, famous venture capitalists hereabouts. His dad was from Berkeley before NYC and LA.

Posted by Anita Felicelli, a Mountain View Online blogger,
on May 18, 2014 at 12:31 pm

Anita Felicelli is a registered user.

Thanks for your comment Mark. In an interview somewhere, Franco claims he didn't want to play the coach, but he's kind of perfect for the role. Choosing to do weirdly complements all his performance art pieces that are supposed to collapse the line between reality and art. I gather from my time at PAIFF that the Draper kids are into moviemaking as well.

Posted by Max Hauser, a resident of Old Mountain View,
on May 19, 2014 at 9:37 am

Max Hauser is a registered user.

"I am evidently in the minority in my opinion about this movie's entertainment or artistic value"

Minority?! Setting aside the specific audience you saw it with, have you noticed the critical reactions to both Franco's stories and the movie that I summarized in a comment to Nick Veronin's recent article here? Web Link

And consensus seems pretty broad that the film's least meaningful feature is its title. Unlike some past teen-angst pictures (grandpa Coppola's "The Outsiders") that bothered to show a sense of place.

Posted by Anita Felicelli, a Mountain View Online blogger,
on May 19, 2014 at 12:06 pm

Anita Felicelli is a registered user.

Hi Max - I would definitely say I and Mick LaSalle are in the minority, based on the reviews on Rotten Tomatoes where it has a 78% score: It is among other things heralded as a "promising debut" with "effortless authenticity" and "appealing tale." I think Coppola has a great eye from a visual perspective and I think the teens in it give great performances, as I think my piece above makes clear, but I don't find this movie promising, appealing, authentic etc.

Posted by anne, a resident of Green Acres,
on May 19, 2014 at 2:22 pm

For me, Affluenza as a topic of teen movies is pretty played out and boring, so I'll skip it.

I hope life doesn't imitate art, I think what's really going on here with most of our teens is more appropriately the subject of a really cool and inspiring documentary.

Posted by Anita Felicelli, a Mountain View Online blogger,
on May 19, 2014 at 2:31 pm

Anita Felicelli is a registered user.

anne - Agreed. So many of my classmates from Gunn went on to do amazing things and I have no doubt that the current group of kids will, too.

Posted by anne, a resident of Green Acres,
on May 20, 2014 at 1:48 am

Another great review, by the way! (From the standpoint that they're always so informative and fun to read.)

Posted by Anita Felicelli, a Mountain View Online blogger,
on May 20, 2014 at 7:43 am

Anita Felicelli is a registered user.


Posted by palo alto resident, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on May 20, 2014 at 9:05 pm

I have to say that my views of James Franco will be always colored by the fact that he continues to come back to Paly and wander around so that the female students (mostly) run around after him. I would perhaps take him more seriously as an artist if his high school connections were artistic and literary instead of literal.

He's a little old for hanging out on a high school campus - although that probably was good prep for his role in Palo Alto.

Posted by MV Mama, a resident of Old Mountain View,
on May 23, 2014 at 1:34 am

I'm a Paly grad, though I'm older than Franco and didn't go to school with him. I did read the book, and it was pretty obvious he was lifting stories, especially the Mr. G story. It's now been made into a movie and people seem to forget that it really did happen, that there are real victims.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Community Center,
on May 24, 2014 at 8:50 pm

Just arrived home from going to see the movie Palo Alto. Other folks were walking out during the movie. What a waste of time and $'s. Ugh!!

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