Movie review

'Palo Alto,' a film of James Franco's fiction, makes for a families affair

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...and Francis Ford Coppola begat Sofia and Gian-Carlo, who begat Gia, and Val Kilmer begat Jack, and Julia’s brother Eric Roberts begat Emma, and...

Genesis-style genealogy is required for “Palo Alto,” an all-in-the-family film that pushes the nepotistic envelope beyond just a coupla Coppolas. More on that later, in the Exodus. It’s not just who you know, in general. It’s who you’ve known since grade school.

“Palo Alto”

Starring: Jack Kilmer, Emma Roberts, James Franco.

Rating: R for strong sexual content, drug and alcohol use, and pervasive language (all involving teens).

For the movie moment, it’s about high school — in the title town of James Franco’s fiction collection, “Palo Alto Stories.” First-time director Gia Coppola casts first-time actor Jack Kilmer as sweet slacker Teddy, who has a crush on shy, smart April (Emma Roberts). She, in turn, is somewhat drawn to him but more drawn to a dangerous liaison with her soccer coach (Mr. Franco), for whom she baby-sits.

Teddy has to do 150 hours of community service for a DUI, but he’s under the far worse influence of best bud Fred (Nat Wolff), a wild and crazy kid with no parental or any other restraints. Meanwhile, the notoriously easy Emily (Zoe Levin) offers sex to any boy who wants it, including Fred and Teddy both. One booze-and-pot-fueled party bleeds into the next. April and Teddy play mutual approach-avoidance tag. Fred's violent recklessness steadily escalates toward disaster.

Writer-director Coppola’s screenplay combines several of actor-writer Franco’s stories and interlinked characters. The resulting plot is no more or less compelling (or random) than teenagerdom itself. Reminiscent of Richard Linklater’s “Dazed and Confused” (1993), “Palo Alto” plumbs the agonies and ecstasies of suburban adolescent life — its passionate jealousies and alliances, its sexual predators and prey.

The Kilmer klan’s pere and fils are both to be commended: Young Jack’s portrayal of Teddy has a tender soul as well as physical beauty, while old Val’s cameo (as April’s stoned stepfather) strikes us as shockingly authentic. So does Mr. Franco’s own performance as the smarmy coach and ephebophile (our word-for-the-day, a step after pedophile: “an adult attracted to post-pubescent teens”) who can’t quite resist seducing his favorite player.

Mr. Wolff is odiously convincing as Fred, a total jerk and cad, in contrast to Ms. Levin’s hopelessly compliant Emily. The nicest cast surprise is Teddy’s art teacher, played by legendary Don Novello — better known as “Saturday Night Live’s” Father Guido Sarducci! — in a small but tasty and uncharacteristically serious role.

The weak link, unfortunately, is Ms. Roberts as April, with her too-cute twitchy nose and assorted other self-conscious mannerisms.

Additional info, as promised, from the Cronyism Dept.: Ms. Coppola was just a budding still photographer when she struck up an email correspondence with Mr. Franco after meeting him at an L.A. party. Mr. Franco, riding high from his terrific Oscar-nominated performance in “127 Hours” — plus previous roles in “Milk” and “Eat, Pray, Love” — liked her photos and offered her this first feature scripting-directing gig, based on his own book, virtually sight unseen!

Could her surname have had anything to do with it?

Is there moonlight in Vermont?

Ms. Coppola (now 27) had known Mr. Kilmer (now 19) since he was a kindergartener and she was in sixth grade. She used her own bedroom — kept intact by her mother when she left home for college — as the basis for April’s bedroom in the film. She gave her cast bonding exercises — including “dream journaling” (acting out each other’s dreams) — in preparation for shooting. Okaaay.

Ms. Roberts at age 9 played the daughter of Johnny Depp’s cocaine smuggler in “Blow,” later becoming the spokesmodel for Neutrogena. She checked into Sarah Lawrence College in 2011 but checked out a few months later to concentrate on show biz and on dating actor Evan Peters. In a man-bites-dog — or, rather, woman-bites-man — scandal last year, she was arrested on a charge of domestic violence against Mr. Peters, who suffered “a bloody nose and teeth marks.”

Why recount such details? I don’t know. Morbid fascination, I guess — just because they’re there.

“Palo Alto,” in any case, contains authentic generational mood, tone and texture. It’s no “Last Picture Show,” yet it empathetically conveys the pointless posing, pining, hanging out, driving around — navigating both the boredom and turbulent excitement of groping toward adulthood. The movie’s mixed-bag resolution is ... well, adolescent.

What else would you expect?

In baseball terms, Ms. Coppola’s first at-bat can be considered a solid single. But with her huge headstart — having been born on first or second base — she needs to hit the next one out of the park.

Opens today at Regent Square Theater.

Post-Gazette film critic emeritus Barry Paris:

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