For writers and filmmakers, one of the hardest subjects to capture with insight and verisimilitude is the world of adolescents, though Hollywood never stops trying. The recently released film "Palo Alto" is a good example.
Coming-of-age films involve a perspective that often proves elusive, prone to stereotypes or hyperbole or attempts at silly comic relief.
Few feature stories resonate or encourage the audience to recall that period in their lives when they were young and life was lived with a burning intensity that will likely never be duplicated. Adolescence is defined by change, is therefore memorable, often painfully so, for it's a riptide of conflicting emotions, an intersection of existential ennui and a pervading anomie, leavened by infatuations and raw excitement that can seem disconcertingly out of control.
Can adults ever create narratives, on film or in literature, about this period that possess the ring of truth? J.D. Salinger, with his now iconic Holden Caulfield, in voice and actions, certainly did. But it's rare, and Holden's voice was Salinger's gift to fiction.
So, does writer/director Gia Coppola (granddaughter of Francis Ford Coppola), 27 years old, come close in "Palo Alto," a film based on a collection of short stories written by actor James Franco, who also appears in the movie? In great part, yes.
Her potpourri of characters is a group of high school students living in the affluent neighborhoods surrounding the Northern California town of Palo Alto. At the center of the film are April (Emma Roberts) and Teddy (Jack Kilmer). School is under way and, though attracted to one another, they are so painfully self-conscious and hesitant when their paths cross that they can't quite connect. Their tight circle of friends, however, does connect, most often at rager parties where pot and alcohol are in abundance and consumed without restraint. All seem, in their own way, self-destructive, unmoored, aimless, seeming a bit dazed by life and its absence of exigencies, drifting through their days, addicted to a seeming feigned posture of indifference and nihilism, all while smoking constantly. Nicotine, apparently, is just one more casual addiction.
In the opening scene — it's late at night, and Teddy is sitting with his best friend, Fred (Nat Wolff), in Fred's car. They're drinking and smoking pot. Suddenly, Fred starts the engine and recklessly (if half-heartedly) runs directly into a wall. It's a moment that foreshadows what will take place in vignette after vignette of this episodic film.
Teddy is soon arrested for a DUI, given probation, and required to complete months of community service. Fred is seemingly on the verge of coming unhinged and feels no remorse as he takes advantage of Emily (Zoe Levin), a promiscuous girl who confuses sex with intimacy, her emptiness and sadness written in her lost eyes.
What Coppola captures so well is the malaise of these young people, their mercurial, shape-shifting approach to their lives. Their lack of self-awareness is remarkable, and it soon becomes clear that they never process with each other those events that touch them. They seem to possess an almost deliberate vacuity. And yet for all of their posturing and insouciance, April, when told by Teddy that he envies her because she doesn't care, insists she cares too much and caring is equated with pain.
What Coppola has assembled is a group of young actors who, to the person, are clearly comfortable inhabiting their characters, and each gives a fine and credible performance. As does Franco as Mr. B., a sleazy soccer coach, regrettably the only significant adult in this story who is more than one-dimensional. But then the parents of these reckless teens all appear to be disengaged, so focused on their own lives that they pay little if any attention to their children, who are, in truth, still half-formed kids. If there is a cliché in the film, it is the parents.
But Coppola still manages to fashion a solid, penetrating film, though at times deeply dark and provocative, asking: Is this the world young people inhabit today? Truly? Is this how it is for teens? Is this the texture of their lives, lived with abandon as if there were few consequences to be considered? And ultimately is it so very different from the experiences of the generations that preceded it?