Having the last name “Coppola” doesn’t automatically make you a filmmaker of note — Exhibit A: “A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III” — but first-time writer-director Gia Coppola does the family name proud with “Palo Alto,” a compassionate examination of bewildered suburban teens.
Adapting the book of stories by the ever-busy James Franco (who appears here in the supporting role of a soccer coach who gets too involved with one of his students), Coppola doesn’t let these kids off the hook for their stupid decisions, of which they make many, but she’s not judging them for their folly, either. Unchecked privilege and clueless parents are trotted out as part of the problem, but Coppola seems more interested in exploring human frailty and vulnerability than she is in digging for a social statement.
It’s an effective tactic, and as a result the film calls to mind earlier classics of angst-filed youths lashing out, from the cult gem “Over the Edge” to Coppola’s aunt Sofia’s debut feature “The Virgin Suicides.”
Emma Roberts, playing a more awkward and gangly adolescent than we’ve ever seen her portray, stars as April, a high school senior dealing with the usual dilemmas about boys and school and the future. She likes Teddy (the cherubic Jack Kilmer), but the night they connect emotionally, he gets really drunk at a party and goes into a bedroom with Emily (Zoe Levin), a girl so desperate to be loved that she makes herself too available sexually.
Driving home drunk, Teddy gets into a car accident and has to serve community service. (Francis Ford Coppola provides the offscreen voice of the judge who hands down the sentence.) Teddy’s lack of hanging-out availability annoys his friend Fred (Nat Wolff), who winds up hooking up with Emily himself. Meanwhile, April’s coach (Franco) starts putting the moves on his young charge.
(For those keeping score at home: Gia Coppola is Francis’ granddaughter, Roberts is Eric’s daughter and Julia’s niece, Kilmer is the son of Val — who plays April’s bohemian stepfather — and Joanne Whalley, and Wolff is the son of “thirtysomething” star Polly Draper.)
Coppola indulges in a few indie clichés (at one point, April sticks her hand out the window of a moving car and makes a wave motion, a stock shot that Andy Samberg brilliantly lampooned on the Spirit Awards a few years ago), but these kids seem real: sometimes you want to smack them in the head, sometimes you want to give them a big hug and protect them from a world they don’t seem ready to face.
Roberts is 23 and Franco is 36, but her body language and mode of dress here makes the age gap seem much larger, accentuating the creepiness of the soccer coach’s intentions. The actress has made a career out of playing precocious and self-assured characters, going all the way back to “Nancy Drew,” but this feels like her most naturalistic teen portrayal: gawky, uncertain, blooming and easily shattered.
Jack Kilmer makes his acting debut here, and I hope more filmmakers can provide roles this interesting to a performer who comes off as very natural and instinctive. Whatever it is he’s currently got, here’s hoping the movies don’t beat it out of him. Wolff, on the other hand, is a lifer, with credits going back to the “Naked Brothers Band” TV show, but he also comes off as interestingly conflicted; he commits awful acts, but Fred is no two-dimensional villain.
As Emily, Levin delivers a lot of what her character’s going through via her expressive eyes, and Coppola puts the character through the wringer without exploiting the actress or the audience’s need to watch young women get abused.
I don’t want to oversell “Palo Alto”; it’s a film that successfully travels in a very established genre, and its successes have more to do with doing something well than doing something new. But it’s the kind of first film, both for the writer-director and for Jack Kilmer, that makes me eager to see what comes next.