Underappreciated Cinema: 'Palo Alto' / by Andrew Yorke

A couple of years ago, I found myself watching several films featuring actress Emma Roberts. For those who do not know, she is the daughter of Eric and the niece of Julia. Many would say that she has been a child of privilege since birth, and that it was only a matter of time before she found herself in motion pictures. Don't get me wrong. There are numerous instances (fairly and unfairly) when I said that of others in similar positions. But for whatever reason, I sensed there was something different about Emma, and that she actually pursued projects that were not merely fluff. So after watching "Lymelife", I finally looked up her IMDb profile. Under projects "in development", I saw this little movie called "Palo Alto". It was directed by a Coppola I had not heard of, but had Emma, James Franco, Val Kilmer and his son Jack attached. Additionally, the synopsis indicated that it was a coming-of-age story, which is always a fascinating genre for me. Very few times can I walk away from one of those, especially with such interesting promise.

It was quite some time before I heard of this movie again, when it began its long journey through the festival circuit. There was still no projected distribution date, and it was beginning to annoy me. I felt there would be something special that would come out of this movie. Needless to say, I grew impatient.

Due to my commitments with work, I was unable to see the movie in theaters when it premiered earlier this year. I checked the buzz (while avoiding the spoilers), and it was mixed. Some said that it was an interesting debut for Gia Coppola, while others said that it was blatantly offensive, outlandish and unrealistic. When it finally arrived in the iTunes store late last week, I was cautiously excited.


I will spare the details and just come out and say it: I flat-out loved Palo Alto. Gia and her crew were able to put together an all-around unique interpretation on a niche of adolescence that is not particularly profitable at the box office. I am convinced this kind of movie would not have been made had it not been for the support of not only James Franco (who wrote the book in which the movie is based) but the Coppola family (which including cousins Robert and Jason Schwartzman) as well. From frame one, it's clear that Gia is doing her best to transport us to a world that is beautifully corrupt and all-too-common for anyone who grew up in suburbia. There are a lot of confusing points during that period of our existence, and it always ends up in having all of us make mistakes for no reason. As Emma's character April states to James Franco, she doesn't know why she does the things she does. According to her, there is no reason. James chuckles and tells her that there's always a reason, but she just may not know the reason because of youth. It's the kind of truth so many of us (myself included) refuse to believe at that age (or any age, really).

It's a surrealistically quiet world that Gia displays for us, and it brought back memories I had from suburban rebellion - being able to walk around the streets late at night with no one else around.  I know a lot of people that complained about that silence, but I always cherished those moments. I cannot help but think even the composers of the the score cherished these moments as well, as the score subtly reacts to the environment in a way that does nothing but compliment this isolated branch of teenage-dom. Combine that with carefully prepared cinematography and underappreciated performances by the entire cast, you have yourself a heck of a cinematic adventure. Seriously. Jack Kilmer, Emma Roberts, Nat Wolff and James Franco all use a kind of natural restraint which compliments the story flawlessly. There doesn't appear to be any excessive ego in this movie.


If you're in the mood for a different kind of coming-of-age story, "Palo Alto" is right up your alley. There have been so many in just the last ten years, and I sometimes get lost in the madness. It's always nice to find an intimate gem like this.