I really, really wanted to like this movie, filmed on the street where we lived for almost twenty years. I gave it every hall pass I could, especially since I think James Franco is a gifted actor, writer and artist. Still, this is not a movie worth seeing.
The narrative focuses on shy, bored April (Emma Roberts), who comes from a family in which her stepfather (Val Kilmer), appears to be a stoner although there is no backstory whatsoever on her connection to her stepfather nor her feelings towards him. She gets involved in a sexual relationship with her soccer coach Mr. B (a smarmy and predatory character played by James Franco) when she babysits for his son. Her classmate Teddy (Jack Kilmer, in a charming performance) has a strong attraction to April but has no ability to express his feelings for her and struggles to get her attention, but mostly fails miserably.
The city of Palo Alto is presented as one high school party of drugs, sex, and alcohol after another. But the story goes nowhere. No inciting incident to pull the viewer in. Just one party after another, and one teenage tantrum after another. “Palo Alto” bounces us around from character to character, in a “coming of age” story that fails.
What doesn’t fit is the friendship between Teddy and his seriously disturbed friend, Fred, someone he hangs out with just because he needs a friend and Fred is just there. So far, believable and sympathetic to a point: two teenagers hanging out together because they have few other options.
High school is often painful and disappointing. So is this movie. Without Coppola and Franco, I wonder if this film would have been financed, let alone filmed!
[“Palo Alto” is currently in theaters under limited distribution. Another, lesser known film with the same title was produced in 2007.]