Emma Roberts plays a high school senior in Palo Alto. Within the context of the movie, she’s convincing, containing multitudes: her April is insecure about her future, overlooked by her distracted mother, and both intrigued and frustrated by her classmate Teddy (Jack Kilmer). But by now Roberts has been playing a teenager for longer than most teenagers spend in high school; she played a sixteen-ish Nancy Drew in 2007; characters around seventeen or eighteen in indies It’s Kind of a Funny Story (2010) and The Art of Getting By (2011); and a recent college graduate in Adult World earlier this year. Palo Alto puts her back around seventeen; in real life, she turned 24 a few months ago.
I don’t bring this up to knock Roberts for not always playing her real age, though it is disconcerting how long today’s actors are expected to play teenagers and early-twentysomethings. Her performance is actually one of the best things about Palo Alto — which points to both the quality of her acting and the fact that the movie, filled with many less-well-known actors, still floats through an eerie netherworld of familiarity somewhere between recognizing real life and remembering other movies that recognized it better.
Palo Alto mainly follows April and Teddy over a few weeks in their California hometown. Teddy is doing community service after a run-in with the law, and trying to steer clear of his troublemaking friend Fred (Nat Wolff). Wolff skillfully portrays a kid whose faux-outrageous acting out carries toxic levels of self-consciousness — maybe too skillfully for the screenplay, which fails to deepen Fred beyond making this trait very, very obvious. His every outburst and insult is a smug pose, OK, but the movie doesn’t go much further than to imply some daddy issues with Fred’s awkward father (Chris Messina). For the most part, Fred stays aggressively empty and Teddy stays so passive that their scenes together drag even when capturing the textures of aimless nighttime drives and BS sessions.
April gets the more interesting storyline, from the unexpected source of an inappropriate relationship she develops with her soccer coach (James Franco). The basic material – ennui-stricken girl learns hard lessons via predatory older authority figure – has been run through many times before, but the movie manages to find a novel angle of approach in the way that April and the adult who should know better coax themselves into an uncomfortable middle ground.
Franco appears because the film is based on his collection of short stories of the same name — though he may well have appeared anyway, as he seems to divide his time between Apatow-related comedies, offbeat art projects, and, lately, indie ensembles like this one (Third Person, another such melancholy indie with a side of Franco, follows in June). Curiously, he did not direct or write the film of Palo Alto; both of those duties fall instead of Gia Coppola. Coppola’s famous grandfather is Francis Ford Coppola, but her debut has more in common with the work of her aunt, Sofia. The images of a teenage wasteland have a similar faded-photograph haziness, without the dream state immediacy of The Bling Ring or The Virgin Suicides. The younger Coppola gets on the adolescents’ level (parents are present but often a nonfactor, or a source of more ennui) but in doing so, drifts around with them to evoke their experiences. Her movie is an agreeable imitative fallacy.