Although Palo Alto is a drama culled from James Franco’s 2010 collection of short stories, it turns out to be a better adaptation of Less Than Zero than Less Than Zero was.
Set in the titular LA district, this loose narrative follows a handful of kids as they finish up school. April (Roberts) is a virgin in love with soccer coach Mr. B (Franco); Teddy (Kilmer) is a quiet youth only prone to outbursts of mayhem when egged on by the devil himself, Fred (Wolff); and Emily (Zoe Levin) hangs on to the idea that Fred might be after something more than just sex.
Coppola’s detached observational style is akin to her aunt’s The Virgin Suicides with Palo Alto deliberately keeping emotions at bay. This might cause the film to plateau too early, giving it nowhere to go, which is probably the point, but Coppola allows these fully-rounded characters time to blossom as the untidy plotting cranks up.
A drama that explores the vacuous lives of wayward teens could fall into either the disengaged Bret Easton Ellis camp or the soulless horror of Larry Clark’s Kids but Gia Coppola steers a steady ship between the two extremes. They might be privileged, they might do drugs, but Palo Alto’s teens aren’t bad kids. Some might tut at the antics but through the haze of dope smoke and the blurry hangovers, this is about the yearning to connect. April and Teddy like each other in an old fashioned, holding hands way that’s totally at odds at the casual sexual abandon going on around them. It’s a glimmer of hope, of real heart, that Ellis and Clark ignore.
Roberts brings a determined tenderness to April and Kilmer’s eyes suggest something is going on behind that blond fringe. But it’s Nat Wolff’s Fred that catches the eye. He’s tough to get a handle on. On one hand he’s a destructor extraordinaire (he chops down a tree at one point) who smokes a lot of grass, downs liquor, deliberately drives his car into a wall, and ignores the advances of the one girl who might save him. But he’s smart too, can play piano. One odd scene with his father (Mindy Project’s Chris Messina), one that Fred isn’t even in, a scene that a thousand directors would cut, goes someway to explain where the nervous hate comes from. Fred exists outside the film’s frame. It’s easy to imagine his future.
Expect great things from Coppola, Kilmer, Roberts and Wolff.