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PrattTribune - Pratt, KS
  • Movie review: James Franco’s ‘Palo Alto’ is a pleasure

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  • Does it make a difference if a film you’re thinking of seeing is by a first-time director? Does it help at all if that director’s last name is Coppola? In this case, it’s worth taking the chance. “Palo Alto,” based on a short story collection by James Franco (does Franco ever sleep?), was adapted and directed by first-timer Gia Coppola, granddaughter of Francis Ford Coppola. She’d been studying and practicing photography for a number of years before this, and has tried her hand at some experimental videos, and she’s been on plenty of movie sets (you can see her as a 2-year-old in “The Godfather Part III”), so she’s not exactly someone with a blank slate.
    She also had guidance, when she asked for it, from Franco, who produced the film and has a supporting role in it (and, by the way, has his own adapting and directing experience with William Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying” and Cormac McCarthy’s “Child of God”).
    Franco chose Coppola to adapt and direct his 2010 batch of loosely connected stories of youthful angst after meeting with her and believing that she had the right attitude for the project. He also gave her total freedom to pick only the stories she felt passionate about, then weave them together into a screenplay that flowed into an interconnected narrative.
    Set in Palo Alto, California, Franco’s home town (he admits that some of his tales are autobiographical), the film has lots of characters doing lots of things, ranging from high school seniors drinking and smoking and having sex and being confused about life, to parents who are too busy or too apathetic to notice that their kids and stepkids are drinking and smoking and having sex and being confused about life.
    Four characters that get the most screen time are April (Emma Roberts), who’s trying to hold on to her virginity; Teddy (Jack Kilmer), a good kid who’s on the fast track toward alcoholism; Fred (Nat Wolff), a fast-talking wiseguy who’s his own biggest fan; and Mr. B (James Franco), a divorced teacher who coaches the girls’ soccer team and has his mind in places that could lead to jail time.
    Roberts, daughter of Eric Roberts and by now a young screen veteran, is good in the role, notably when she’s trying to put across the emotional turmoil that so many teens go through, but she tiptoes around the darker parts of the character that really could have fleshed her out. Kilmer (son of Val, who cameos as a stoned-out stepdad), in his first feature role, perfectly captures the perplexity of someone who thinks he’s doing the right thing – and usually is – but must deal with some problems he can’t handle. Woolf, who was the best part of last year’s “Admission,” is also the best actor in this film, as he makes it difficult for viewers to choose between sympathy, pity or total dislike toward his character. Some are going to say that Franco is slumming here, and is only onboard as an actor so the film would get the green light. But that’s not so. Just check out the expressions on his face that reveal the complexity and teen-like confusion he’s portraying.
    Page 2 of 2 - The film is heavy on two-person discussions, which gets us closer to and more understanding of these characters. Teddy and Fred are dreamers who share a lot of “what if” scenarios. April and Teddy are attracted to each other, but find it hard getting beyond “Hi, how are you?” when they’re together. April and Mr. B, at the suggestion of Mr. B, spend some late-night time studying together, but only one of them is thinking about studying.
    The film manages to smartly and smoothly maneuver between being serious and funny and depressing and hopeful. One of its pleasures – and much credit must go to Franco for creating the stories – is that it also has such a feeling of familiarity. Anyone watching this will see a version of themself or someone they know. Coppola gives the film a fresh feeling, both with her visual approach, and in showing a flair for getting her actors to forget about acting and just be real people. Her Aunt Sofia has been steadily growing as a filmmaker. Here’s hoping Gia will follow the same route.
    Ed Symkus covers movies for More Content Now.
    PALO ALTO
    Written and directed by Gia Coppola
    With Emma Roberts, Jack Kilmer, Nat Wolff, James Franco
    Rated R

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