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By Sally Torbey

Seeing "Palo Alto" while living in Palo Alto

Uploaded: May 20, 2014

Yesterday I saw the movie "Palo Alto," and later in the evening attended Paly's swimming and diving team end-of-season banquet. Juxtaposing these two events was an experience of cognitive dissonance.

The movie is set in the present day, but the events are based on the collection of stories that James Franco wrote about his high school days at Paly in the nineties, as well as events that occurred in Palo Alto after he graduated. The teens in the movie spend most of their time drinking, smoking, getting high and hooking up. And the adults are seducing, nagging, ignoring or getting high with the teens. Some of the girls play soccer, but with cigarette breaks during practice. Contrast watching this movie with attending a swim team banquet where about 80 high schoolers, most of whom have been attending nine weekly grueling two-hour swim practices for 15 weeks, are joyously celebrating the end of an exhausting but fulfilling season over a great meal with their families, all organized by parent volunteers.

The issues highlighted in the movie, but dealt with very superficially, include: depression, suicide, sexual promiscuity and abuse, addiction, and vandalism. These are serious issues that have affected teens and families in our community. Over the past decades, we have confronted these issues and continue to educate ourselves about prevention. Programs in our community, such as Project Safety Net, educate and empower teens to recognize when they or their friends are suffering, work towards destigmatizing mental illness, and have helped us all be knowledgeable of resources for keeping teens safe. But neither the context nor the aftermath of thinly disguised events is depicted in the movie, and presenting these events as all happening now is a misrepresentation and feels exploitive to those of us who have lived through them.

The book and the movie present a bleak existence that is not an accurate portrayal of teens' lives in Palo Alto, despite comments to the contrary made by the director, Gia Coppola, in a recent article in the Palo Alto Weekly. She believes that "(Franco's) book really articulate(s) what it's like to be a teenager today," and she also glorifies the risk-taking behavior in the movie as demonstrating an "uninhibited spirit that gives the youth such vitality and allure." Coppola trivializes the trauma in the movie and ignores that substance abuse, and being the victim of sexual abuse, can have devastating and lasting effects on physical and mental health. The Weekly article's title, "The kids aren't all right, but they'll be ok," also minimizes the damage and life-long consequences of the dangerous behaviors in the movie, and the article praises the movie's "authenticity." I did not find the bored, self-destructive, disenfranchised teens in the movie, nor the parents and other adults in their lives, "authentic", but rather caricatures in a worst case scenario of parenting and adolescence gone terribly wrong.

Last week I watched 18 seniors in a World Literature class present their semester projects to their classmates. I was impressed by the students' energy, creativity, diligence, sophistication, and problem solving skills. I was witness to that "uninhibited spirit" channeled in meaningful and fulfilling ways. Particularly at this time of year of graduations, promotions, performances, and end of year celebrations, the fields, gyms, parks, and stages of our community are filled with youth and families celebrating effort, engagement, accomplishments and transitions. The movie "Palo Alto" does not show what it is like to grow up in Palo Alto, but is a reminder, albeit disturbing, of why we watch over our teens carefully and provide a wide variety of opportunities for them to explore their interests, and find meaningful ways to connect with one another and engage with the wider community.