‘Palo Alto’ movie review

Gia Coppola’s debut film is ambient, almost indolent teen drama that features sparks of wit, but ultimately is too laidback for its own good, and fails to distinguish itself.

Based on James Franco’s short stories, it’s also going to suffer from the stigma of Franco’s appearance in the film as ‘a handsome soccer coach’ (to quote the Edinburgh Film Festival programme), who makes a move on Emma Roberts’ April under cover of babysitting requirements.

The link between the method actor’s real life Instagram incident and this character makes him even creepier, as does the fact that none of these people are any good at football, so he can’t be in it for love of the sport. A note to all directors: football rarely looks convincing in films, and neither does giving the clearly right-footed Roberts no clear position and the number 3 jersey. She’s no Asamoah Gyan.

Nonetheless, the team aren’t supposed to be especially good, and Creepy Franco (or ‘Cranco’, as the obvious portmanteau would have it) is also meant to be creepy and desperate. The focus is on April and Teddy (Jack Kilmer, son of Val; who also pops up here in an amusing cameo), who both obviously fancy each other but are being led astray and pulled apart by Cranco and Teddy’s best friend Fred (Nat Wolff, with a big, charismatic performance as an obnoxious dickhead).

While Palo Alto is well acted, and flows languidly along with a hazy blissed out vibe, it isn’t especially gripping. I can’t help but feel that the tales it sluggishly spins are now too familiar, and while its verisimilitude is laudable, it doesn’t make for a novel or interesting take on tropes such as the ‘good kid’ who’s lost his way, or the girl and the teacher’s illicit relationship. Well-observed, yes, but also well worn.

It doesn’t help that many of the adult characters, in their fleeting appearances, are more interesting people despite being kept on the periphery. The woman whose car Teddy crashes into, his art teacher and even an old folks’ carer with two lines feel more intriguing by virtue of no-one making endless films about them.

Teenagers are, of course, a significant portion of the market and intense in their feelings, but once you’ve moved past that stage it feels like you want to spend more time with the – admittedly outlandish – older eccentrics than the headstrong braggarts and hormone spurters.

Overall, the feeling is of a more aimless film than Palo Alto actually is, and despite the 100 minute running time it felt like a slog. While moments of endearing nuttiness and good editing raise some chuckles its lack of originality, and indeed vitality, make it far from engaging. No matter how well made a film is it’s hard to recover from that.

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Released in UK cinemas later this year.