A&E

Gia Coppola explores wide-eyed, wild, wasted youth in 'Palo Alto'

The kids aren't all right, but they'll be OK

The first two minutes of Gia Coppola's atmospheric film adaptation of James Franco's short-story collection, "Palo Alto Stories," would be enough to give any parent pause before handing over the car keys to their teenage son or daughter.

The film opens on two teenage boys, Fred and Teddy, drinking and smoking inside an early '90s Cadillac coupe, which is parked on the top level of some nondescript garage.

As the voice of legendary San Francisco Giants play-by-play announcer Jon Miller murmurs over the car radio, the two teens banter for a bit before Fred, without reason or warning, slams on the accelerator, sending the car screeching three feet forward into the parking garage's wall.

Fred howls with delight, honking the horn and proclaiming how good the senseless act of chaos felt, as the film's two-word title, "Palo Alto," appears -- a glowing, neon blue on top of a black background.

Fred continues his celebratory fit, while Teddy appears dazed, though not shocked, by his friend's reckless stunt. He sits there, mouth agape, unsure of what to do. It is a version of an expression Teddy will wear again and again throughout the film, as he and the rest of his peers meander from party to party, searching for answers to questions they barely even know how to ask in this dark coming-of-age tale.

On a sunny day, inside a suite in San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel, the "Palo Alto" director takes questions about her debut feature film.

Granddaughter to Francis Ford and the niece to Sofia, the budding filmmaker grew up surrounded by some of the biggest names ever to appear on the silver screen. She split her youth between Southern California and her family's vineyard in Napa.

It is clear Coppola has been afforded opportunities that plenty of aspiring directors will never have -- she speaks almost in passing of Franco approaching her to take on the adaptation of his short stories, because, well, of course she is close with James Franco. Still, she has said in other interviews that she is looking for no handouts and wants to find her own voice.

One is inclined to believe she was not seeking to exploit her privilege when she passed on shooting the film in Palo Alto.

For logistical and budgetary reasons, Coppola says, she and her crew shot everything in the suburbs outside of Los Angeles.

"I would have loved to have filmed it up here, but we couldn't afford it," the director shrugs.

All of the film's stars were based in L.A., along with all the other resources she needed to make the movie.

In the end, though, it doesn't matter. As Coppola explains, the feelings and themes that she sought to capture in "Palo Alto" are "universal."

"James' book kind of pinpoints certain places in Palo Alto," Coppola notes, referring to "Palo Alto Stories," Franco's collection of 12 fictional tales, which he has said were inspired by his personal experiences and those of his peers growing up in the book's titular city.

The way Coppola sees it, the book, and her film, are less about actual people and places and more about the "essence" and "growing pains" that so many people experience, in one form or another, during adolescence.

"It's really just about the emotions of being that age and using teenagers as subject matter to articulate those emotions," she says.

When describing the films that most influenced her direction of "Palo Alto," Coppola rattles off names like "Short Cuts," "Dazed and Confused" and "American Graffiti" -- movies that are primarily preoccupied with bottling a feeling, and allowing the characters to lead the way, creating the plot as they move forward through the story.

"Palo Alto Stories" struck a chord with Coppola precisely because they weren't dependent upon plot points, but were driven instead by emotional decisions. And so, when Franco asked her if she would like to adapt the collection into a film, she jumped at the chance.

"I just really loved (the book)," Coppola says. "Teenagers are fascinating in general, and I felt like (Franco's) book really articulated what it's like to be a teenager today and was really authentic."

That authenticity shines through in Coppola's film, beginning from the very first shot, as Fred (Nat Wolff) implores Teddy (Jack Kilmer) to reveal who he would be if it were "the olden times." It's an absurd question, one that would only be asked in the exact context it is posed: by someone bored, drunk and stoned.

As the two discuss the question at length, talking over the Giants broadcast humming along in the background, one can't help but think there must be some teenagers out there right now, having a similar conversation -- sitting out in the middle of a field, or under a bridge somewhere, unsupervised, getting high, or drunk, or both, asking each other asinine questions and giggling, proud of their ability to be so snarky and irreverent.

Ostensibly, the film is little more than a collage of moments like these. For the entirety of its 100 minutes, "Palo Alto" bounces between the overlapping story lines of several restless and confused high schoolers.

There is Teddy and his wild-child buddy, Fred -- as inseparable as they are polar opposites. While Teddy is reserved, unable to find a way to express his feelings for classmate April (Emma Roberts), Fred is the class clown, smooth with the girls and constantly vying for attention with increasingly dangerous stunts -- such as deliberately running his car into a wall, cutting down a tree in the middle of the night, or veering into oncoming traffic.

These actions perplex and alienate Teddy -- that is, unless Fred has used his devilish charm and chaotic magnetism to convince Teddy to join in the destruction.

April, like Teddy, is painfully shy. And though she has a crush on Teddy, she ends up falling into the trap laid by James Franco's character -- an older, predatory soccer coach, Mr. B -- even as she recognizes that she "should be hanging out with boys (her) own age."

If Teddy is reflected in April, Fred finds something of a match in Chrissy (Olivia Crocicchia), who, unlike April, is "hanging out" with plenty of boys her own age. Before the film is over Chrissy finds herself behind closed doors with both Teddy and Fred, and similar liaisons with other boys are alluded to throughout the script.

While Chrissy is mocked for her promiscuity, she responds not by retreating inward, as both Teddy and April do when they are confronted with challenges. Rather, she continues to act out.

The unifying thread among all of these characters is, of course, confusion -- and Coppola and her cast thoroughly explore the emotion in all its varying shades.

There is the confusion April and Teddy feel, as they each try to make clear that they're interested in each other, yet somehow always manage to say the wrong thing. There's the confusion Chrissy feels when Fred makes flirtatious advances, only to disappear after they've hooked up. And then there is Freddy's confusion -- hinted at in some of his off-color remarks and in a violent outburst toward the film's conclusion, which suggests he may be unsure about his own sexuality or is perhaps grappling with some kind of childhood abuse.

Each of the characters' personal struggles is only exacerbated by the fact that none of them have the proper emotional tools to deal with their respective situations.

--- --- ---

Coppola, who first read "Palo Alto Stories" shortly after graduating from Bard College, says that the stories resonated strongly with her.

"I was in that place of having enough separation that I could kind of reflect on those awkward teenage years fondly," she says, noting that Franco's collection brought her right back to her adolescence, and gave her cause to reassess some of the more confusing chapters in her life.

Now 27, Coppola is in many ways at an ideal juncture to helm a film like "Palo Alto" -- old enough to bring the perspective of adulthood but not so far removed from her high school days as to have entirely forgotten the anxiety of adolescence.

"At the time (when I was a teenager), it felt like everything was such a big deal," Coppola says. "I just remember those moments of not being able to express yourself and being really shy and the missed opportunities that are the result of you not being able to say your feelings -- and not really knowing what those feelings are."

The kids of "Palo Alto" certainly get little or no help in sorting out their feelings -- at least not from the film's adult characters. Though Coppola's direction takes the viewer into several households, seldom is a parent seen, and those adults who do make an appearance are either stoned, getting stoned, making passes at teenagers, or ignoring them entirely -- lost in cell-phone calls and household chores.

Like the real life Palo Alto, the suburban landscape that the characters of "Palo Alto" inhabit is well-manicured and solidly upper-middle class. It's a sure bet that some will dismiss the travails of the film's characters as so many first-world problems. But Coppola, who knows a thing or two about growing up in a family of means, says she believes there is a specific kind of sadness that sometimes stems from wealth.

"I think that maybe when you're wealthy and you don't need to support yourself and don't have a sort of structured routine, with a (regular) job, there is no sort of purpose in your life, and it's not necessarily happy," she says.

However, the relative wealth of the characters and their parents isn't as important to the film as what is lacking in spite of that wealth. Coppola muses that perhaps the most crushing blow that each of the film's characters suffers comes with the realization that their parents, teachers and all the adults in their lives -- the people who they've grown up thinking of as being in control -- ultimately cannot save them from themselves.

With "Palo Alto," Coppola says she was attempting to show "that shift, when you're young, and when you realize that adults and authority figures are human beings, too" -- that they are fallible, that they don't have all the answers, and that, in fact, they might be just as lost as the teenagers whom they have been charged with shepherding through to adulthood.

Coppola says that making the film forced her to view the world from the perspective of her characters -- a process she says was challenging and fun, and which gave her new insights into her own life and what it means to be young.

"When you're young, it's kind of amazing how you don't understand consequences," Coppola says.

In particular, the director elaborates, she has found herself thinking recently about the risks she and her friends took when they were younger. While they may seem crazy in retrospect, she muses, it is the uninhibited spirit that gives the young such vitality and allure.

It's almost as if the oblivious nature of youth is protective in as many ways as it is perilous -- as if her characters, having yet to fully experience the consequences of their actions, can truly be "open and dangerous," confident (albeit naively so) that should they fail, they'll be able to dust themselves off and bounce right back.

It is precisely this youthful ethos that gives "Palo Alto" such an ethereal and airy feel, despite all of the weighty topics it confronts. And it's what allows the viewer to leave the movie clinging to a shred of hope. The kids of "Palo Alto" may not be all right, but you get the sense that they're going to make it out the other side, and not too worse for wear.

Read our review of "Palo Alto" by Peter Canvese.

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