Millions of teenagers may graduate every spring, but a lot of them never really get over high school. They might leave town for good and swear they’ll never look back, but something about those wonderful, horrible teenage days and nights remains lodged inside of them no matter how hard they try to pry it free.
There’s so much raw experience and emotion boiling in the crucibles of American high schools that it seems impossible for anyone to walk away from those years unburnt. Yet we remain fascinated by the eternal truths of that dangerous, ecstatic age, and every now and then a movie brings them back alive. Writer-director Gia Coppola’s Palo Alto, a hazily poetic reckoning with the forces at work shaping today’s kids, might be that film.
Out of the crowd of awkward California girls and boys, Coppola picks four to follow: smart, uncertain April (Emma Roberts); decent Teddy (Jack Kilmer); mixed-up Emily (Zoe Levin); and confrontational Fred (Nat Wolff). Palo Alto shows that it knows where its children are, or at least where they’re likely to be, by opening with a long shot of Teddy and Fred sitting inside Fred’s car. Learning how to drive is the key freedom of adolescence, but it’s a tricky one to negotiate. For Fred and Teddy, the world is theirs, but they don’t know where to go. Another year with nothing to do looks inevitable. So they vow to move forward, and if that means their car hits a brick wall, well, so be it.
These four characters’ quest for an escape hatch shapes Palo Alto’s impressionistic drifting, which owes a lot of its visual sensibilities to Gus van Sant films like Elephant and Punishment Park. Emily looks for a way out by giving blow jobs to indifferent boys who take them as a birthright and abandon her. Teddy finds some comfort in the children’s library where he performs community service. Fred tries to break on through to the other side by being as caustic and obnoxious as possible. And April wonders what a relationship with her soccer coach Mr. B (James Franco, who wrote the short stories upon which the film is based) would feel like for a girl.
Sex, drugs, alcohol, sports, property damage — all the usual ways out are rounded up and scrutinized. But there’s a sensitive recognition of lives in transition that’s reflected in Coppola’s imagery and characterization. Teenagers wearing bunny socks and goofy headbands pick up plastic cups and empty bottles from last night’s party. And, for what feels like the first time in the movies, Coppola shows us the affection and the power games at work whenever adults in positions of authority talk to teenagers. The two conversations between Franco and Roberts are unobtrusively revelatory, as surprising as finding money in a pair of old pants.
I don’t know who this raw slab of flesh and pain and confusion is for, exactly, but that’s not a criticism. As a high school teacher, I wish I could talk to all the experts I know about this movie. Unfortunately, they graduate tonight. And I’ll probably never see any of them again.