Sunday, 19 October 2014

Youth run wild: "Palo Alto"

Of Clan Coppola, you will of course already be aware of Don Francis and Cousin Cage and the prodigal Sofia, she of the wispy, floating tendencies; now let me introduce you to Francis's granddaughter Gia, a writer-director whose quietly impressive debut Palo Alto, adapted from James Franco's fiction collection Palo Alto Stories, preserves some of the harder edges Aunt Sofia has been prone to skirting around. Its heroine Alice (Emma Roberts) is a non-tanned, non-blonde sensitive soul, somewhat alienated from her Valley Girl contemporaries, who's reached the age where options, good and bad, have started to present themselves. The opposite sex, for one - and while her football coach (Franco himself) appears to have cast her in the role of jailbait-babysitter fantasy material, Alice has her eye on talented yet troubled Teddy (Jack Kilmer, son of Val), busy working through his own issues.

Alice is notionally the centre, yet Coppola keeps shifting her focus onto supporting characters; in so doing, she shows us enough of this bland, sunkissed suburbia to make us understand why these kids are wont to run into the shadows and rebel. There's a sociological urge at play here. Franco, who likely fancies himself a latter-day Henry James (and doubtless just fancies himself), does have an ear for how these kids talk, and an eye for the blunt ways in which they approach one another: he and Coppola have created a juicy tragicomic role for Nat Wolff as Fred, a young man incapable of exiting a scene without having first done something crude, whether petulantly kicking away a basketball after an oncourt altercation or scrawling cocks in a children's book. These brats have been schooled to believe that being shitty to one another is the best form of communication; pitifully low on self-esteem, they reject others as they are themselves rejected, and use sex as a way of obtaining the attention and affection denied to them by their folks. As in Maps to the Stars, parents and children are shown to lead separate lives: Fred's dad (a nicely etched cameo by Chris Messina) is - much like Franco's letchy coach - really nothing more than a big kid, using dope as a somewhat desperate means of clinging onto his youth. 

Coppola is gentle, even remorseful, in the manner in which she frames these foibles and transgressions: Fred's lengthy description of a gang-bang could be straight out of Larry Clark, but it's unclear whether this event actually happened or is merely the outpouring of a porn-addled teenager's mind. Something of Sofia's gift for fantasy and ambiguity is clearly in Gia's DNA, too, but here it results in a film that's often more disconcerting than elusive or evasive: she knows when to show and tell it like these kids do, but she's also always aware of when to hold back a little, the better to preserve the innocence that sits at the writing's core. This empathy is surprisingly touching, and bodes well for the filmmaker's future projects: adolescence is once again here presented as a perilous tightrope, but Coppola takes every one of her characters by the hand, and leads them from innocence to experience with considerable assurance.

Palo Alto is now showing in selected cinemas.

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