From the first few scenes in Palo Alto it’s obvious Gia Coppola is a natural director. Anyone who has ever picked up a camera knows that the decision of where to point the thing can be maddening and complicated, but Coppola makes it look as if it’s no decision at all, as if the camera just happened to be in the right place at the right instant to capture a feeling of flux — of dislocation even in one’s own supposed hometown. There’s barely a narrative in Palo Alto, which is adapted from a collection of high-school-set short stories by James Franco, but there’s constant movement, a pervasive feeling of drift — of teenagers almost coming together and vaguely moving apart. The movie would be vaporous if not for the aura of dread.
The first scene is a perfect distillation of the mood. Two boys — the mean, keyed-up Teddy (Jack Kilmer) and the shaggy-blond Fred (Nat Wolff) — sit drinking in a car in a darkened parking lot. They fantasize about time travel and get into a meaningless argument about whether they’d be peasants or royalty — before Fred announces he’s “king” and steps on the gas and accelerates into a wall. That’s it, in a nutshell (or a ball sack): The only power you have is to f— yourself up.
Fred is the scary one, the loose cannon. Teddy is sweeter but unformed. He likes this cute girl, April (Emma Roberts), who might like him back, and he almost manages to declare himself (or declare something of himself) to her at one of those rich-kid teen-wasteland parties where everyone’s drinking, smoking pot, and pairing up. But then she and Teddy and Jack head out to a cemetery and carve up an ancient tree and a kind of grim nothingness descends. The next time Teddy sees her he has just puked his guts up and gotten an unasked-for (but un-refused) blow job from a girl named Emily (the affectingly open Zoe Levin). Teddy zips up, walks away, and finds April making out with another guy. He lurches into his car, sideswipes a driver on the way home, and barrels off without stopping. The police are at his driveway almost before he is.
Who or what, you ask, is to blame for all this bad behavior — April’s sexual confusion, Teddy’s lack of focus, Emily’s compulsive promiscuity, Fred’s barely suppressed rage? There must be a scapegoat! Could it be the combination of affluence and spiritual emptiness that the Silicon Valley capital has come to embody in our culture? Not really: We don’t actually see much of Palo Alto and its fabled software companies. How about the parents? They seem okay — not too sharp but not clueless either. Emily’s dad (Val Kilmer, actor Jack Kilmer’s father) is a stoner who might be sick with something serious. He’s a know-it-all — he overedits her school papers — but he’s friendly. (Kilmer is in Fat Brando–weird mode.) So is April’s dithery mother, played by Coppola’s mom, Jacqui Getty. Fred’s dad gives Teddy a distinctly pedophilic vibe, but nothing comes of their encounter. Teen protagonists have had to endure a lot worse, let me tell you.
You can’t pin a lot down in Palo Alto — a critic has almost to write around it, sure there’s something there even if it’s not spelled out. There’s not much to be found in the movie’s source. Franco has a lot of confidence, a lot of enterprise. He’s our Renaissance heartthrob — he does so, so many, many things. He acts onscreen. He acts onstage. He writes prose, screenplays, poetry. He directs. He hosts major awards shows as if it’s no biggie. His Palo Alto: Stories feels as if it were written quickly, perhaps on deadline for a Freshman Expos class. He impersonates a writer convincingly — he knows what a good short story sounds like even if he can’t write one. But it’s Coppola who gives this inchoate material a dramatic shape.
Franco is, however, extremely effective as “Mr. B.,” Emily’s high-school coach, who puts the moves on her — subtly but insistently — while she’s babysitting for his kid. In the last few years Franco has seemed to be acting the part of an actor instead of inhabiting his roles (his Spring Breakers drug maven was a virtuoso nightclub impersonation), but his half-in-half-out manner fits. Mr. B. isn’t fully committing. He likes what he sees enough to tell April he loves her. But his manner says he wants to have her and maintain deniability.
Coppola, of course, is the granddaughter of Francis; her father, Gian “Gio” Coppola, was killed before she was born in a boat driven recklessly by the damaged son of Ryan O’Neal, Griffin. I don’t know if scenes of privileged kids drinking themselves into oblivion and driving the wrong way in traffic have special meaning for someone who never knew her dad because of similar impulses. But the most powerful aspect of this strange little movie is the sense that in an instant things could go very, very bad — even if they don’t. Palo Alto puts you on edge because it’s all dangerous corners.