Outside of providing a handsome collection of fine wines at affordable prices, the surname Coppola conjures images of Italian gangsters and disassociated youth - the latter image becoming increasingly more vital as the years press on. Gia Coppola, niece of Sophia, forges along the path that her aunt has charted with material provided by James Franco’s short story compilation. Palo Alto’s immediate sense of familiarity isn’t something that can be shaken, with the first time director emphasizing a wispy ambiance but lacking any of the imaginative formal flourishes that her aunt and grandfather are known for.
The vignette structure of Palo Alto finds three high school teenagers drifting through a suburban construct. Dissociated from their milieu and perpetually acting out, Coppola examines the three teenagers and their relationships. The strained friendship between Fred (Nat Wolff) and Teddy (Jack Kilmer) is largely the result of how their various drunken rendezvous seems to be behavior spurred on by the other - their continued friendship produces toxic behavior but it’s only Teddy who develops an increasing awareness of it. Meanwhile, April’s (Emma Roberts) parental void is filled by her soccer coach (James Franco) who makes his intentions with April clear.
The film drifts, coursing through the lives of these teenagers as they attend parties and go about typical adolescent behavior. Cinematographer Autumn Durald shoots Palo Alto in brown hues; often times emphasizing a foggy thickness in the air that gives the picture a thematically appropriate stiffness. It’s particularly effective when Coppola employs tracking shots of her characters as they course through household parties of imbibing teens - the thickness permeating beyond the surface of the screen.
Yet Palo Alto resonates more like a mist, dissipating before it really ever makes contact. Whether it’s the thin material in which Coppola is exploring or the overarching sense that Sophia Coppola has examined the culture of suburban adolescent boredom with greater dramatic and formal finesse (The Virgin Suicides and The Bling Ring), Palo Alto never quite develops into something significant. The film bares a strong kinship to Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, particularly in the manner it examines an insular culture of privilege. But Korine’s efforts evolved into a medusa-like sprawl of racial, social, gender, and political concerns; Palo Alto remains entrenched in its culture without calling to question on the specificity of its environment.
Palo Alto is left intact by impressive performances from its principal leads, as well as an understanding of how teenagers speak and interact with one another. The film’s objective view point disavows any particular condemnation of their behavior. Whereas many films of this nature attempt to bookend the experiences of their characters as if to chart a specific moment of development in their lives, Palo Alto’s feathery touch feels more like a random sampling of three teenagers simply existing - with a life that extends beyond the end of the film’s runtime.