Emma Roberts takes a drag in the James Franco adaptation "Palo Alto." Credit: Tribeca
'Palo Alto' Director: Gia Coppola Stars: Emma Roberts, Jack Kilmer Rating: R 3 (out of 5) Globes
How does an artist accurately portray teens? If you’re an adult, you risk condescending to them or seeming pathetically old, if not outright pervy. (See: the work of Larry Clark.) But teens themselves aren’t always their best chroniclers, as witness the hotbed of scared-straight cliches in the film “Thirteen,” written by then 14-year-old Nikki Reed. How would James Franco fare? His 2010 short story collection “Palo Alto” hangs with high schoolers in the town he grew up in as they pair off, do drugs, do anything but live for the future.
If Franco came off as both old and pervy, even as it tried to avoid both, the film made from it finds the balance he never could. Its adapter-director, Gia Coppola — the latest in a seemingly neverending dynasty of film artists — may be 27. But she seems to know these characters instinctively — strange, since she clearly had more ambition than all of them put together. The characters are the types that rarely get time on screens. They’re neither popular nor unpopular. They’re closer to the “freaks” of Franco’s show “Freaks and Geeks,” but they lack the close group mentality. They’re loners and they’re not special, which makes them oddly interesting.
Treating Franco’s source the way Robert Altman did Raymond Carver in “Short Cuts,” Coppola selects a few of the stories and mashes them together. Emma Roberts plays April, who finds herself drawn to her coach (Franco himself), for whom she babysits. Still, she has a thing for Teddy (Jack Kilmer), a mathlete who would rather spend his time with his bestie, Fred (Nat Wolff), a free spirit whose impulsive goofiness frequently slips into self-destruction. (Kilmer’s dad Val turns up far, far too briefly as April’s stoner stepfather, his hair tied up in multiple scrunchies.)
Apart from flattening out any potential ogling, Coppola’s thing is bottling up the California feel of sunny abandon, then marrying it to that way-station period when high school ends and college — or just real life — starts. Her characters have no stable plans, not even Teddy, and the older they act — as with April’s fling — the more lost they feel. “Palo Alto” is reminiscent of “The Virgin Suicides,” by Coppola’s aunt Sofia, though it’s neither as accomplished nor as ominous, and it never takes the dive into passive-aggressive judging that wound up hobbling last year’s “The Bling Ring.” It’s as close a direct line between teen feelings and cinema as you’re likely to find.