Friday, June 6, 2014

Teen Spirits: PALO ALTO


On a plot level, there’s little that happens in Palo Alto that looks like my teenage years. And yet, in its evocation of adolescent confusion and uncertainty, it feels achingly true. There’s something about being a teenager that’s incredibly isolating. While you’re living through it, you might think your particular combination of problems are completely your own, that no one could possibly relate. Awkwardness, loneliness, and introspection are closed systems. But then somewhere along the way, as you find getting older leads to perspective, if you let it, a switch is flipped. Suddenly you can see the teenage experience for what it is. Surface details of teen lives differ wildly, but the feelings underneath are universal. The best movies about teens understand this.

The teens in Palo Alto don’t have the perspective about themselves and about the world that would bring their problems into focus. They care too little and too much in the same instant. In the liminal middle of their teenage years, choppy emotional waters rage underneath protective layers of disaffected monotone. It’s written and directed by Gia Coppola, a third-generation director, granddaughter of Francis Ford Coppola and niece of Sofia Coppola. She confidently captures an adolescent state of mind with the specificity and sympathy of someone far enough removed to have perspective, but not too far removed to still feel its immediacy. She’s 27 and has a photographer’s eye. The world of the suburban high-schoolers she explores is lived in, captured in details casual and right. It’s not art-directed stylist-driven product-placement “teenage.” It is languorously shot by Autumn Durald, hazily lived in, scuffed-up, stretched, with details that don’t fall off on the sides of the frames.

The film follows four teens through a short period of time in their lives as they drift with anxiety, apathy, and uncertainty. April (Emma Roberts) is shy and sensitive, sweet but often ignored. She finds herself drawn towards and intimidated by male attention, but usually too busy with schoolwork and babysitting to act on it. Teddy (Jack Kilmer, son of Val Kilmer and Joanne Whalley, in his debut role) is nice, artistic, and curious, but troubled. He hangs with bad influences and finds himself in trouble with the law. Fred (Nat Wolff) is twitchy and unpredictable. He seems to be play acting “bad kid,” with a quick temper, teasing danger, and affected odd behaviors that make it hard to tell whether he’s only fooling or genuinely disturbed. Emily (Zoe Levin) flirts and fools around with lots of boys. But though she’s willing, her interior life is more conflicted. At one point she hollowly grumbles, “I’ve never been in love.”

They float in similar social circles, their paths crossing from time to time. But even together they seem so lonely, all in the process of figuring out who they are, what they like, and who they will become. They never quite figure it out in the time we spend with them. The film ends before any resolution of that kind. But that’d be too simple anyway. It’s not a film with a big statement about Kids These Days or the State of the American Teenager. It’s not moralizing or message-based. It’s a movie of small gestures and modest shifts within the prickly fog of adolescence. Coppola summons the ambiguity of high school days. These characters are stretching away from the children they so recently were, reaching towards the adults they’ll become. This stretched state is dangerous business.

They’re brooding and troubled, trying on personas, nervous and self-conscious, shyly testing one another. They provoke and are provoked, experimenting with alcohol, drugs, sex, art, music, relationships. The film doesn’t let them off easy while showing a great deal of compassion for them. They’re often photographed alone or in pairs, chatting in cars, sitting in bedrooms, loitering in parking lots and driveways. Most revealing is when they are alone. One kid writes a song on a guitar. Another puts on a dress and tests out flirty poses. They’re free to try the boundaries of their identity most fully when alone. Get them together and the experiments dissect, altering in response to the others.

Adults, and role models in general, are rare. They drop in for platitudes before carrying on with their own preoccupations. There are benign parents, teachers, and judges upholding the line between children and adults. Then there are adults creepily muddling that line. For example, there’s a soccer coach (James Franco, who also wrote the short stories on which the film is based) who stares sleepily, seductively across the line. He’s only a decade or so older than his students, but the developmental importance of those years is painfully obvious. The glimpses of adult life we see on the margins of the teens’ stories are ghosts of future possibilities.

Coppola is content with making Palo Alto a hazy mood piece, getting a contact high off of the characters and their interior struggles acted outwards. She gets relaxed controlled performances out of her young cast. They act like real kids, and the movie watches what they do, how they act, and how it affects them. It hangs back observing, capturing moments in time that are critically important and yet, if they survive, doomed to fade in importance with astonishing speed as they have the rest of their lives ahead of them. When the movie ends, the characters are unresolved, open-ended. They have long ways to go. Some of them are more fully down bad paths with no easy way out. Others have started to hesitantly, incrementally move forward in better directions. This film has the compassion to respect their lived experience and evoke it with care. 

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