By Anita Felicelli
Gia Coppola's "Palo Alto" v. James Franco's "Palo Alto"Uploaded: May 18, 2014
A year ago I was browsing Goodreads reviews, and noticed one by a co-founder of Goodreads (who I went to Gunn High School with) criticizing James Franco's collection of short stories Palo Alto. The gist of the critique was that Franco had claimed as fiction true events from all three of our adolescent lives in Palo Alto, and she didn't think he should get to take real people and put them in his stories as fiction.
Franco is 1 year younger than the Goodreads co-founder and me, and we all went to JLS at the same time before Jordan Middle School reopened. One of Franco's short stories references an Asian kid who was one of the three responsible for a bomb in the quad at Gunn High School in 1994, an event that was traumatizing to some of our classmates, but which Franco, had turned into his dramatic material. Another of the stories references a teacher who actually did sexually molest middle-school girls back in the '90s. Other true events and locations were scattered through the collection.
Unlike my former classmate, I don't particularly care about the use of real people in fiction. For me, everything that an artist comes into contact with becomes part of his or her raw material. The use of real people in fiction is nothing new, whether particular writers admit to doing so or not. What was interesting to me was that this collection was so mechanical and so lacking insight, in spite of or perhaps because it was based on true events. It is not a good collection of short stories?it is not "true" in an artistic sense, even though it is pegged onto many real events and people from Palo Alto in 1990-1996 range. In contrast, my friend Karin Spirn who graduated from Paly shortly before Franco did, wrote this essay about Palo Alto in the '90s that I find both insightful and true.
This issue of insight and authenticity is what came back to me while sitting in the audience after Gia Coppola's Palo Alto aired at the Guild. After the screening, Palo Alto Weekly film critic Peter Canavese interviewed Gia Coppola and a male lead from the film Jack Kilmer. Coppola made a remark at some point in the Q&A that she was surprised all the events in Franco's book had really happened during a short time period. She remarked that when Franco asked her to interpret his book, she was willing because the book felt very authentic to her and it involved "universal" emotions. In spite of its source material, the film has nothing to do with our Palo Alto, except insofar as teen angst and pain is "universal" as Coppola puts it.
Gia Coppola's film feels very much like a Sofia Coppola treatment of Franco's stories. It is the rare movie that transcends the book, but like the book it lacks insight. Also, perhaps because it is adapted from short stories, the film has very little plot. There are a pair of friends, quiet Teddy (Jack Kilmer) and Fred, an aggressive and slightly lunatic teenage boy. There is Coach B in another excellent creepy performance by James Franco (he was great in Spring Breakers where he was also creepy, but in a different way). The soccer coach hits on April, a "good" high school girl who can't quite articulate her own needs and desires (Emma Roberts). If I remember correctly, April in the book was sexually molested as a child and that is the reason she succumbs to the coach's advances, but that isn't a part of the movie. Teddy likes April.
The film was shot in an LA suburb and it depicts a fairly generic white suburban ennui. Like the short story collection, it strings together markers of adolescence?micro-aggressions and cruelty and drugs. In one scene Fred talks about the pressure Asian parents put on their kids (as an explanation for why an unseen Asian person commits suicide). In other scenes, adults prove themselves to be clueless or sexual predators or irresponsibly stoned. Jack Kilmer revealed in the Q&A that actor Chris Messina who plays Fred's father actually went off-script to hit on him in their scene together. I'm a fan of Messina, but it doesn't quite work to have the two most prominent adults in the story (Fred's dad and Coach B) be untrustworthy in the same exact way.
The performances, particularly those of Emma Roberts and newcomer Jack Kilmer, are moving. And Coppola's visual talents and sympathy for teen experience are evident throughout the movie. She certainly captures, in her camerawork, what it feels like to be a teenager. But the story feels episodic, not as much by design as Coppola claimed in her Q&A, but for lack of insight into cause and effect. As April notes, teenagers rarely know why they do anything. But the farther you get from adolescent experience, the more you build a coherent story?a story with cause and effect?about why your teen years were the way they were. Events that feel irrelevant to that story fall away. One of the problems with Palo Alto is also its strong suit?it is so close to the experience of adolescence and so focused on evoking and sympathizing with all the pain, it does not have a clear perspective of cause and effect.
I am evidently in the minority in my opinion about this movie's entertainment or artistic value. The people who attended this screening very much liked the movie, and identified with it and snickered at various scenes I found quite depressing. I recommend renting The Spectacular Now or The Perks of Being a Wallflower instead and waiting for this to come to DVD.
In her Q&A Coppola remarked that, even though she neither shot the movie in Palo Alto and was going for a universal feel, she left the title Palo Alto because she liked how it looked typographically. That sums up this movie-going experience for me - a lot that looks and sounds gorgeous, but which lacks insight and emotional heft.