Gia Coppola explores wide-eyed, wild, wasted youth in 'Palo Alto'

The kids aren't all right, but they'll be OK

The first two minutes of Gia Coppola's atmospheric film adaptation of James Franco's short-story collection, "Palo Alto Stories," would be enough to give any parent pause before handing over the car keys to their teenage son or daughter.

The film (read the Weekly review here) opens on two teenage boys, Fred and Teddy, drinking and smoking inside an early '90s Cadillac coupe, which is parked on the top level of some nondescript garage.

As the voice of legendary San Francisco Giants play-by-play announcer Jon Miller murmurs over the car radio, the two teens banter for a bit before Fred, without reason or warning, slams on the accelerator, sending the car screeching three feet forward into the parking garage's wall.

Fred howls with delight, honking the horn and proclaiming how good the senseless act of chaos felt, as the film's two-word title, "Palo Alto," appears -- a glowing, neon blue on top of a black background.

Fred continues his celebratory fit, while Teddy appears dazed, though not shocked, by his friend's reckless stunt. He sits there, mouth agape, unsure of what to do. It is a version of an expression Teddy will wear again and again throughout the film, as he and the rest of his peers meander from party to party, searching for answers to questions they barely even know how to ask in this dark coming-of-age tale.

On a sunny day, inside a suite in San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel, the "Palo Alto" director takes questions about her debut feature film.

Granddaughter to Francis Ford and the niece to Sofia, the budding filmmaker grew up surrounded by some of the biggest names ever to appear on the silver screen. She split her youth between Southern California and her family's vineyard in Napa.

It is clear Coppola has been afforded opportunities that plenty of aspiring directors will never have -- she speaks almost in passing of Franco approaching her to take on the adaptation of his short stories, because, well, of course she is close with James Franco. Still, she has said in other interviews that she is looking for no handouts and wants to find her own voice.

One is inclined to believe she was not seeking to exploit her privilege when she passed on shooting the film in Palo Alto.

For logistical and budgetary reasons, Coppola says, she and her crew shot everything in the suburbs outside of Los Angeles.

"I would have loved to have filmed it up here, but we couldn't afford it," the director shrugs.

All of the film's stars were based in L.A., along with all the other resources she needed to make the movie.

In the end, though, it doesn't matter. As Coppola explains, the feelings and themes that she sought to capture in "Palo Alto" are "universal."

"James' book kind of pinpoints certain places in Palo Alto," Coppola notes, referring to "Palo Alto Stories," Franco's collection of 12 fictional tales, which he has said were inspired by his personal experiences and those of his peers growing up in the book's titular city.

The way Coppola sees it, the book, and her film, are less about actual people and places and more about the "essence" and "growing pains" that so many people experience, in one form or another, during adolescence.

"It's really just about the emotions of being that age and using teenagers as subject matter to articulate those emotions," she says.

When describing the films that most influenced her direction of "Palo Alto," Coppola rattles off names like "Short Cuts," "Dazed and Confused" and "American Graffiti" -- movies that are primarily preoccupied with bottling a feeling, and allowing the characters to lead the way, creating the plot as they move forward through the story.

"Palo Alto Stories" struck a chord with Coppola precisely because they weren't dependent upon plot points, but were driven instead by emotional decisions. And so, when Franco asked her if she would like to adapt the collection into a film, she jumped at the chance.

"I just really loved (the book)," Coppola says. "Teenagers are fascinating in general, and I felt like (Franco's) book really articulated what it's like to be a teenager today and was really authentic."

That authenticity shines through in Coppola's film, beginning from the very first shot, as Fred (Nat Wolff) implores Teddy (Jack Kilmer) to reveal who he would be if it were "the olden times." It's an absurd question, one that would only be asked in the exact context it is posed: by someone bored, drunk and stoned.

As the two discuss the question at length, talking over the Giants broadcast humming along in the background, one can't help but think there must be some teenagers out there right now, having a similar conversation -- sitting out in the middle of a field, or under a bridge somewhere, unsupervised, getting high, or drunk, or both, asking each other asinine questions and giggling, proud of their ability to be so snarky and irreverent.

Ostensibly, the film is little more than a collage of moments like these. For the entirety of its 100 minutes, "Palo Alto" bounces between the overlapping story lines of several restless and confused high schoolers.

There is Teddy and his wild-child buddy, Fred -- as inseparable as they are polar opposites. While Teddy is reserved, unable to find a way to express his feelings for classmate April (Emma Roberts), Fred is the class clown, smooth with the girls and constantly vying for attention with increasingly dangerous stunts -- such as deliberately running his car into a wall, cutting down a tree in the middle of the night, or veering into oncoming traffic.

These actions perplex and alienate Teddy -- that is, unless Fred has used his devilish charm and chaotic magnetism to convince Teddy to join in the destruction.

April, like Teddy, is painfully shy. And though she has a crush on Teddy, she ends up falling into the trap laid by James Franco's character -- an older, predatory soccer coach, Mr. B -- even as she recognizes that she "should be hanging out with boys (her) own age."

If Teddy is reflected in April, Fred finds something of a match in Chrissy (Olivia Crocicchia), who, unlike April, is "hanging out" with plenty of boys her own age. Before the film is over Chrissy finds herself behind closed doors with both Teddy and Fred, and similar liaisons with other boys are alluded to throughout the script.

While Chrissy is mocked for her promiscuity, she responds not by retreating inward, as both Teddy and April do when they are confronted with challenges. Rather, she continues to act out.

The unifying thread among all of these characters is, of course, confusion -- and Coppola and her cast thoroughly explore the emotion in all its varying shades.

There is the confusion April and Teddy feel, as they each try to make clear that they're interested in each other, yet somehow always manage to say the wrong thing. There's the confusion Chrissy feels when Fred makes flirtatious advances, only to disappear after they've hooked up. And then there is Freddy's confusion -- hinted at in some of his off-color remarks and in a violent outburst toward the film's conclusion, which suggests he may be unsure about his own sexuality or is perhaps grappling with some kind of childhood abuse.

Each of the characters' personal struggles is only exacerbated by the fact that none of them have the proper emotional tools to deal with their respective situations.

--- --- ---

Coppola, who first read "Palo Alto Stories" shortly after graduating from Bard College, says that the stories resonated strongly with her.

"I was in that place of having enough separation that I could kind of reflect on those awkward teenage years fondly," she says, noting that Franco's collection brought her right back to her adolescence, and gave her cause to reassess some of the more confusing chapters in her life.

Now 27, Coppola is in many ways at an ideal juncture to helm a film like "Palo Alto" -- old enough to bring the perspective of adulthood but not so far removed from her high school days as to have entirely forgotten the anxiety of adolescence.

"At the time (when I was a teenager), it felt like everything was such a big deal," Coppola says. "I just remember those moments of not being able to express yourself and being really shy and the missed opportunities that are the result of you not being able to say your feelings -- and not really knowing what those feelings are."

The kids of "Palo Alto" certainly get little or no help in sorting out their feelings -- at least not from the film's adult characters. Though Coppola's direction takes the viewer into several households, seldom is a parent seen, and those adults who do make an appearance are either stoned, getting stoned, making passes at teenagers, or ignoring them entirely -- lost in cell-phone calls and household chores.

Like the real life Palo Alto, the suburban landscape that the characters of "Palo Alto" inhabit is well-manicured and solidly upper-middle class. It's a sure bet that some will dismiss the travails of the film's characters as so many first-world problems. But Coppola, who knows a thing or two about growing up in a family of means, says she believes there is a specific kind of sadness that sometimes stems from wealth.

"I think that maybe when you're wealthy and you don't need to support yourself and don't have a sort of structured routine, with a (regular) job, there is no sort of purpose in your life, and it's not necessarily happy," she says.

However, the relative wealth of the characters and their parents isn't as important to the film as what is lacking in spite of that wealth. Coppola muses that perhaps the most crushing blow that each of the film's characters suffers comes with the realization that their parents, teachers and all the adults in their lives -- the people who they've grown up thinking of as being in control -- ultimately cannot save them from themselves.

With "Palo Alto," Coppola says she was attempting to show "that shift, when you're young, and when you realize that adults and authority figures are human beings, too" -- that they are fallible, that they don't have all the answers, and that, in fact, they might be just as lost as the teenagers whom they have been charged with shepherding through to adulthood.

Coppola says that making the film forced her to view the world from the perspective of her characters -- a process she says was challenging and fun, and which gave her new insights into her own life and what it means to be young.

"When you're young, it's kind of amazing how you don't understand consequences," Coppola says.

In particular, the director elaborates, she has found herself thinking recently about the risks she and her friends took when they were younger. While they may seem crazy in retrospect, she muses, it is the uninhibited spirit that gives the young such vitality and allure.

It's almost as if the oblivious nature of youth is protective in as many ways as it is perilous -- as if her characters, having yet to fully experience the consequences of their actions, can truly be "open and dangerous," confident (albeit naively so) that should they fail, they'll be able to dust themselves off and bounce right back.

It is precisely this youthful ethos that gives "Palo Alto" such an ethereal and airy feel, despite all of the weighty topics it confronts. And it's what allows the viewer to leave the movie clinging to a shred of hope. The kids of "Palo Alto" may not be all right, but you get the sense that they're going to make it out the other side, and not too worse for wear.

--- --- ---

Check out Weekly film critic Peter Canavese's review of the film here. Canavese, who runs his own movie blog, Groucho Reviews, will also be moderating a Q&A with "Palo Alto" director Gia Coppola and star Jack Kilmer after the film's 4:14 p.m. screening at the Guild Theatre in Menlo Park on Saturday, May 17.

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Like this comment
Posted by Three cheers for us we're in a move!
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on May 16, 2014 at 9:10 am

What a vapid article. This film raises important issues about our youth, about sexual harassment in our schools, alcohol, drugs, sex, emotional problems, and more but none of them are discussed here. Instead, we get "they'll be OK." Oh thanks Weekly for that empty worthless PR piece. Skip the soul-searching and go right to the soundtrack. Gah. What garbage.

Like this comment
Posted by Three cheers for us we're in a movie!
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on May 16, 2014 at 9:15 am

"The kids of "Palo Alto" may not be all right, but you get the sense that they're going to make it out the other side, and not too worse for wear."

The movie is about the horrible risks that our kids are taking and the obliviousness and self-centeredness of the adults in their lives who need their perfect child to be perfect in their perfect world.

unless they die on the tracks, get hospitalized for cutting, go to rehab, get arrested, or get sexually harassed until they have to leave school due to rape culture. That might leave them worse for the "wear."

What would the Weekly article of "Thirteen" read: "While some kids argue with their parents, it's just a normal part of teenage years and it's all awesome. See our Real Estate Ads, page 15")

Like this comment
Posted by Been there
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 16, 2014 at 10:34 am

As someone who grew and went to high school with Franco, I can tell you that the stories in the book are all true. As I read it, I thought - ah, yes, he's talking about so and so; or yeah, I remember hearing about that.

Like this comment
Posted by SusieQ
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on May 16, 2014 at 10:38 am

Hmmmmm.....Franco plays an "older, predatory soccer coach" and lays a trap for a female student who babysits for his kid. Sounds vaguely familiar. Seriously? Do we need to see this played out on screen?

Like this comment
Posted by Perspective
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 16, 2014 at 10:43 am

The movie is about SOME kids and SOME parents.

I work with Palo Alto kids who have set up online writers groups where they are writing and editing each others' stories for fun. They are diving deep into theater. They are working hard at school and managing busy schedules to make sure there is time for friends and fun creative projects, and hanging out in the park together. My older daughter just got herself a full-time job for the summer to help pay for college--on her own initiative.

I see lots of great stuff in these kids--They are creative, clever, funny, hardworking, loving, joyful. Sometimes it gets stressful, but mostly they keep their lives in perspective. I do a lot of volunteer work in the schools, so I am lucky to work with them often. I won't pretend there's no drug use and risk-taking behavior. It happens. As with every generation, there are troubled kids who lack support and guidance and make terrible mistakes. However, many, many Palo Alto kids are doing just great. Let's appreciate each of them as individuals who make individual choices, like the rest of us. No generalizations about a generation, please.

Like this comment
Posted by RussianMom
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 16, 2014 at 10:51 am

Perspective, so well said! Let's appreciate our kids. Not everything is bad in PA, many kids and families are happy. We don't have a chance to talk and hear about those.

Like this comment
Posted by YSK
a resident of Community Center
on May 16, 2014 at 10:56 am

Bummer. I would rather the film had been shot in Palo Alto.

Like this comment
Posted by YSK
a resident of Community Center
on May 16, 2014 at 10:58 am

SusieQ, I know to whom you are referring and that was a really difficult time. My kids were in close contact with that person, they thought he was great, and I supported the innocence until facts proved otherwise. :(

Like this comment
Posted by Mom in the 80's
a resident of Professorville
on May 16, 2014 at 11:29 am

SF "Chronicle" movie review headline this morning of "Palo Alto";
"High school revisited-as awful as always".
"Nothing in the story feels specific to that California City or emblematic of it"

Like this comment
Posted by Jonathan
a resident of another community
on May 16, 2014 at 11:52 am

I haven't seen this movie, though I read some of the stories it stems from (and know that the film version omits some of Franco's most repellent material). But it appears that not only is there little or no local flavor here, there's little originality. That extends all the way to its having stolen the title from another film, 2007's Palo Alto (see Web Link). Made by people who were closer to teenage than the hyped Gia Coppola, and replete with actual Palo Alto locales, that one is worth seeing. It's available for streaming on Netflix.

Like this comment
Posted by Meh
a resident of Barron Park
on May 16, 2014 at 11:54 am

There was another film called "Palo Alto, CA" which was terrible, but it looked like it was mostly filmed here. I am not a fan of Franco, so I won't be in a hurry to see this one, especially if it wasn't even filmed locally.

Like this comment
Posted by kr in midtown
a resident of Midtown
on May 16, 2014 at 12:02 pm

If you want to see the real thing, go see the FIRST "Palo Alto" movie, which was written by Palo Alto High graduates, directed and produced by the same, filmed right here in Palo Alto, and screened at the TriBeCa film festival.

Web Link

I can't believe this article never even mentioned this original movie. Nick Veronin, you didn't do your homework.

Like this comment
Posted by Hmmm
a resident of East Palo Alto
on May 16, 2014 at 1:04 pm

Hmmm is a registered user.

The important question to ask: If this film better or worse than Franco's naked selfies?

Like this comment
Posted by surprised
a resident of East Palo Alto
on May 16, 2014 at 2:47 pm

I am surprised.
I thought Palo Alto kids were perfect and smoking and drinking happened only in East Palo Alto.

Like this comment
Posted by village fool
a resident of another community
on May 16, 2014 at 3:23 pm

@Moderator - May I, respectfully, suggest to add this thread to the schools & kids category? (it is "around town" now).

Another movie based on past events comes to mind - Web Link
Wiki background - Web Link

Like this comment
Posted by Max Hauser
a resident of another community
on May 16, 2014 at 3:23 pm

Max Hauser is a registered user.

The Daily Post's review noted that the movie "Palo Alto" "oddly contains nothing to contextualize it as the wealthy _tech capital_ of its title" (my emphasis). No doubt what makes real Palo Alto unique rather than generic, and the value of any such anchoring, was off the radar of the LA-based filmmakers; and as everyone keeps saying, it's avowedly a youth genre picture.

But to add some context here, genre youth stories were Franco's evident point in writing, and as you may know, the stories themselves received serious criticism. Excerpted from Wikipedia:

Scribner published a collection of short stories, Palo Alto, by Franco . . . Inspired by some of Franco's own teenage memories, and memories written and submitted by high school students at Palo Alto Senior High School . . . The book has received mixed reviews; Los Angeles Times called it "the work of an ambitious young man who clearly loves to read, who has a good eye for detail, but who has spent way too much time on style and virtually none on substance." . . . At least one editor of a literary journal testified he would not publish Franco's stories, claiming he has been published due to his star power, not literary talent. Publishers Weekly reviewed the collection, stating "The author fails to find anything remotely insightful to say in these 11 amazingly underwhelming stories."

Like this comment
Posted by Max Hauser
a resident of another community
on May 16, 2014 at 3:28 pm

Max Hauser is a registered user.

Actually, "Mom in the 80's" summed up the situation more succinctly with two one-liners in an earlier comment.

Like this comment
Posted by Other side of the tracks
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 17, 2014 at 9:33 am

Perhaps Coppola should have named the film "Affluenza" instead.

I agree with you, Perspective. I am regularly stunned by the great kids here. There's a great quote somewhere about how incredibly hard (but not impossible) it is to write about good people and make them interesting, which speaks to the skill of writers. Anyone?

I'd like to see someone take that aspect of Palo Alto on, which is really my Palo Alto. (I'll do it someday if someone else doesn't :-) Palo Alto Love Story ... Funding anyone? )

I also read that most kids are surprised to learn that drugs and other teen ills are not inevitable or even desired by the majority of teens, but they experience a lot of pressure because popular culture portrays teen culture so exclusively negatively.

I have always wished Franco well, but I wish he didn't view this place so exclusively through his own navel...

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Posted by times
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 17, 2014 at 9:59 am

Franco's stories are not only his navel but different times.

What I'm seeing today May 17, 2014, Palo Alto high school students are among the brightest and some of the nicest kids I have seen anywhere. There are some exceptions, and they get all the press.

I agree with poster that it may be boring to make a movie or write about the regular kids, but that's OK. Notoriety is not exactly good, and before long, the notorious are not only famous for navel stories, but stories about their navel, if that makes any sense.

Go boring!

Like this comment
Posted by Franco please go away
a resident of Southgate
on May 17, 2014 at 11:39 am

[Post removed.]

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Posted by Other side of the tracks
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 17, 2014 at 12:02 pm

@ times,

That's why I'm looking for that quote! A really good writer knows how to make good people not boring, but it's **really** hard, probably the hardest challenge for a writer. Most are (obviously) not up to the task.

Like this comment
Posted by Other side of the tracks
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 17, 2014 at 12:15 pm

PS - I should probably also add, for the benefit of any kids (or aspiring writers) who read this --

There's a difference between what makes a story arc and characters interesting and easy to tell, and what makes a PERSON interesting.

Storytelling requires tension and resolution, so it's harder to make a story interesting with inherently good characters than it is when the characters are fundamentally flawed.

But that is not to say that good people are boring. Look at Jacques Cousteau or Mother Theresa, Jackie Robinson or Tim Berners-Lee, or Tina Fey and George Clooney for that matter.

Kids who go through the worst of the usual boring teen angst and screw up their lives so they never get out of it are interesting on film but very often boring losers in real life. Kids who are so great that they make good people and success in life would be much harder to plop into a plug-and-chug storyline, because it's harder to create the typical elements of compelling storytelling. But in real life, they are often the most fascinating of people.

Hope that clarifies things. I do NOT think our great kids are boring, either!

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