It's a storied tradition, the teenagers-in-trouble movie. One of my favorites is 1983's WarGames, which dates back to my own adolescence and concerns a teenager in trouble for bringing the world to the brink of nuclear annihilation. The stakes aren't quite as high in Palo Alto, but it's an apocalyptic vision all the same. At chaotic parties, kids swig liquor, smoke weed and have sex. They pull off cruel pranks and get into legal trouble. At best, the adults in their lives are, like the parents in WarGames, clueless. At worst...well, I'll get to the worst in a minute.
Painful, edgy and intermittently comedic, Palo Alto was directed by Gia Coppola, granddaughter of Francis. She adapted it from a book of short stories by James Franco, whose company produced the film. It's quietly perceptive about teenagers in a way many teen films aren't. Coppola understands kids' anxieties and acknowledges their recklessness, and she captures their nostalgia for early childhood. The young actors give bracing, honest performances.
Like many teen films (The Breakfast Club, American Graffiti), Palo Alto is an ensemble piece, though its main focus is April (Emma Roberts) and Teddy (Jack Kilmer). She plays on the soccer team, and he's a high school artist who, early in the film, drives drunk, gets in trouble with the police and begins performing court-ordered community service. April and Teddy pine for each other, but the film keeps finding ways to keep them apart. That's a traditional romantic-comedy device, and it's one of the reasons Palo Alto sometimes is more conventional than it purports to be.
The film tells their stories in tandem. April's is the more troubling. She is friendly with her soccer coach (Franco), who at first seems like a cool guy. She baby-sits for him, and he gives her special attention. He turns out to be a major creep, a predator who should be kept far away from teenage girls. Meanwhile, Teddy's woes owe much to his friendship with Fred (Nat Wolff), by far the film's liveliest character. Fred is charismatic, but impulsive and heartless. He is so outlandish, in fact, that he is all but unbelievable -- except that when I was a kid, guys just like him were among my closest friends. Fred has a dalliance with sad, sexually adventurous Emily (Zoe Levin).
Palo Alto is a shattering portrayal of suburban anomie, but I'm not sure what to take away. After all, artists have been eviscerating the suburbs since the 1950s, and Palo Alto doesn't have much new to add -- not least because these days, many suburbs, ravaged by the real estate crisis, aren't the same as they were in the 1950s. The post-crash suburbs are still waiting for their John Cheever.