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Two Decades of Kids and Counting

By Sally Torbey

About this blog: About this blog: I have enjoyed parenting five children in Palo Alto for the past two decades and have opinions about everything to do with parenting kids (and dogs). The goal of my blog is to share the good times and discuss the ...  (More)

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Seeing "Palo Alto" while living in Palo Alto

Uploaded: May 20, 2014
Yesterday I saw the movie "Palo Alto," and later in the evening attended Paly's swimming and diving team end-of-season banquet. Juxtaposing these two events was an experience of cognitive dissonance.

The movie is set in the present day, but the events are based on the collection of stories that James Franco wrote about his high school days at Paly in the nineties, as well as events that occurred in Palo Alto after he graduated. The teens in the movie spend most of their time drinking, smoking, getting high and hooking up. And the adults are seducing, nagging, ignoring or getting high with the teens. Some of the girls play soccer, but with cigarette breaks during practice. Contrast watching this movie with attending a swim team banquet where about 80 high schoolers, most of whom have been attending nine weekly grueling two-hour swim practices for 15 weeks, are joyously celebrating the end of an exhausting but fulfilling season over a great meal with their families, all organized by parent volunteers.

The issues highlighted in the movie, but dealt with very superficially, include: depression, suicide, sexual promiscuity and abuse, addiction, and vandalism. These are serious issues that have affected teens and families in our community. Over the past decades, we have confronted these issues and continue to educate ourselves about prevention. Programs in our community, such as Project Safety Net, educate and empower teens to recognize when they or their friends are suffering, work towards destigmatizing mental illness, and have helped us all be knowledgeable of resources for keeping teens safe. But neither the context nor the aftermath of thinly disguised events is depicted in the movie, and presenting these events as all happening now is a misrepresentation and feels exploitive to those of us who have lived through them.

The book and the movie present a bleak existence that is not an accurate portrayal of teens' lives in Palo Alto, despite comments to the contrary made by the director, Gia Coppola, in a recent article in the Palo Alto Weekly. She believes that "(Franco's) book really articulate(s) what it's like to be a teenager today," and she also glorifies the risk-taking behavior in the movie as demonstrating an "uninhibited spirit that gives the youth such vitality and allure." Coppola trivializes the trauma in the movie and ignores that substance abuse, and being the victim of sexual abuse, can have devastating and lasting effects on physical and mental health. The Weekly article's title, "The kids aren't all right, but they'll be ok," also minimizes the damage and life-long consequences of the dangerous behaviors in the movie, and the article praises the movie's "authenticity." I did not find the bored, self-destructive, disenfranchised teens in the movie, nor the parents and other adults in their lives, "authentic", but rather caricatures in a worst case scenario of parenting and adolescence gone terribly wrong.

Last week I watched 18 seniors in a World Literature class present their semester projects to their classmates. I was impressed by the students' energy, creativity, diligence, sophistication, and problem solving skills. I was witness to that "uninhibited spirit" channeled in meaningful and fulfilling ways. Particularly at this time of year of graduations, promotions, performances, and end of year celebrations, the fields, gyms, parks, and stages of our community are filled with youth and families celebrating effort, engagement, accomplishments and transitions. The movie "Palo Alto" does not show what it is like to grow up in Palo Alto, but is a reminder, albeit disturbing, of why we watch over our teens carefully and provide a wide variety of opportunities for them to explore their interests, and find meaningful ways to connect with one another and engage with the wider community.

What is it worth to you?


Posted by Margaret T, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive,
on May 20, 2014 at 9:36 pm

What a shame that both Franco and Coppola missed an opportunity to "solve" or discuss a few of the problems they over state. I too see vibrancy more frequently than despair, and parents in control and working at parenting than the opposite.
Thanks for watching the movie so I am now spared.

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on May 20, 2014 at 9:47 pm

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Thanks Margaret T, for reading and commenting. I couldn't agree with you more concerning a desire for a more thoughtful treatment of issues facing teens and parents in our community.

Posted by Debbie, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on May 20, 2014 at 9:59 pm

Thank you for shining a spotlight on the more wholesome aspects of teens in Palo Alto, and on the support many work hard to offer them. I would like to hear the Weekly's rationale of why it chose the film and article to be the cover story of its paper last week.

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on May 20, 2014 at 10:15 pm

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Dear Debbie,
I am also curious as to why the prominent coverage for such a dark movie about teens. Thanks for reading and commenting.

Posted by PR, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on May 20, 2014 at 11:55 pm

Thanks for the heads up--I'll go see "Chef" instead!

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on May 21, 2014 at 7:18 am

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Hi PR,
Great choice. Chef is heartwarming and hilarious. Go hungry and eat afterwards at La Bodeguita del Medio as you will be craving Cuban food.

Posted by Erin, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive,
on May 21, 2014 at 7:32 am

James Franco and I went to PAUSD schools at the same time (he is two years younger than I am) and I am pretty certain we grew up in completely different towns.

Was it the difference between Paly (where Franco attended high school) and Gunn (where I attended high school)? Maybe, but doubtful.

Were there drugs, drinking, and sexual encounters? Sure, but I'm also pretty certain that those things happen at every high school.

Is Palo Alto a strange town to grow up in? Absolutely. When being in the band is cooler than being a cheerleader, you know you live in a crazy place.

Are the kids all right? Probably not. The pressure to perform in all areas of life, put on ourselves or by our peers, is hard to describe.

Will they be okay? Yes, absolutely. Just keep up the great parenting.

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on May 21, 2014 at 8:57 am

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Thanks, Erin, for sharing your view as a contemporary of the author but with a very different experience growing up in Palo Alto. There do seem to be unique pressures and high expectations of kids in this area, but there are upsides to that as well. The support parents give each other in raising kids goes a long way to making sure the kids will be okay.

Posted by Bill, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on May 21, 2014 at 9:38 am

Thanks Sally for the well written and thoughtful review. This is the second time I have been warned off this material. My wife bought the book with high expectations, got through 3 chapters, and has been using it as coaster ever since. She found it depressing and unbelievable and advised that I not waste my time with it either.

Posted by Joanne Brown, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on May 21, 2014 at 10:54 am

With all due respect, the book and movie are works of fiction. Reality is heightened and or manipulated in fiction to create another story that could have been or could actually happen. Remember, Edgar Rice Burroughs creator of both jungle hero Tarzan and the heroic Mars adventurer John Carter, never went to Africa or Mars for that matter.

P.S. I believe James Franco was on the Palo Alto High Swim Team or Water Polo Team. He was also quite bright (still is) and had an internship at Lockheed Martin.

Posted by Erin, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive,
on May 21, 2014 at 12:04 pm

Joanne - I do believe that most of the stories are either true or a bit exaggerated. That smoke bomb gone bad on the Gunn quad seriously injured two of my classmates and gave me nightmares for weeks. The partying, drugs, shooting animals, all happened, just on a bit of a less dramatic scale than Franco writes. That said, his book doesn't represent all of what Palo Alto teenagers were/are like which I believe is what Sally is explaining above.

Posted by Mother of 4, a resident of Palo Alto High School,
on May 21, 2014 at 12:54 pm

As a parent who was also a teenager in the dark distant past (according to my kids) I can remember all sorts of anecdotes about what some of my peers were up to that I had little or no knowledge about. Yes, there were some incidents that made local headlines, there was one expulsion that I know of for sure. There were rumors and pranks that hurt no one, as far as I was aware. There were kids in school that I would not have wanted to hang with outside school. There were those that got in trouble with police and those that should have done.

Ultimately though, I came out of it with little or no damage, because I was well parented and chose the right friends and the right way to spend my free time. True that there were times I could have made bad choices, but I knew the difference between right and wrong and although I may have bent a few rules they were not the major rules. I expect there are a lot like me who have survived well regardless of where they grew up. I imagine that Erin is in the majority of those who were peers.

The reason I say all this is because I think experience prepared me a lot better for the real world. I was not wrapped in bubble wrap for my own protection and I managed to get a good glimpse of how to deal with life as an adult. My suspicion is that the same things can be said about Palo Alto kids today at both Gunn and Paly. As parents we can't prevent them from seeing all aspects of adolescent behavior. The question is would we want to?

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on May 21, 2014 at 3:02 pm

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Thanks, Bill, for reading and commenting. I haven't read the book but the movie depicts disturbing material with little insight into the causes of the recklessness.

Dear Joanne,
Thank you for reading and commenting. I agree, the movie is a fictionalized version of real-life events. I doubt, though, that the movie would be on the cover of our local newspaper if it had a fictional city as its title. Titling it Palo Alto implies that it might be more truth than fiction, and thus also makes the film more interesting to the movie-going public.

Dear Mother of 4,
Thanks for reading and commenting. Peer pressure is a powerful force. Parenting can go a long way to helping teens make good choices, but we have also thought it best to keep our kids out of situations where it might be difficult to make good choices, such as inadequately supervised parties. We probably restrict our high schoolers' social activities more than some folks choose to, but so far it seems to have worked for us, and they have made safe choices in high school, college and as young adults.

Posted by Mother of 4 , a resident of Palo Verde School,
on May 21, 2014 at 4:55 pm

Hi Sally

I think we are on the same page, rather than at cross purposes. I agree that teens need supervision and guidance about how to make good choices. I particularly agree about house rules in connection with curfews and inadequately supervised parties. At the same time, I believe in some independence and trust, expecting teens to be able to ride their bikes to school and after school activities without being driven everywhere, for example.

My thoughts were more along the lines of trying to protect them from the realities of what may happen and does happen to teens who make mistakes. News articles relating to teens in the news, particularly local, are teachable moments.

Posted by LJ, a resident of another community,
on May 21, 2014 at 5:03 pm

Thanks for the heads up on this film, Sally. Your blog and the discussion that follows could be helpful for friends who see the movie. In fact, I see that it is "now showing in a theater near " me!

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on May 21, 2014 at 7:50 pm

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Hi Mother of 4,
Absolutely, living in a bikeable city is great as kids can gradually take on the responsibility of getting themselves places and keeping adults informed of their whereabouts.

Speaking of news stories with teachable moments, we saw a change in parents' attitudes in our community a few years back after the arrests of local parents for having intoxicated teens at parties in their homes. It is another way in which the film was not believable as set in the present, as every night the teens were at an alcohol fueled event at someone's home, a liability most parents are now not willing to shoulder.

Hi LJ,
It is not a movie I'd rush out to see, but if you have a friend in another part of the country who does see it, it would be interesting to hear their impressions!

Posted by Joanne Brown, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on May 22, 2014 at 7:04 am

Sally -- you are awesome and so are your readers :)

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on May 22, 2014 at 8:11 am

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Hi Joanne!
Thanks, and I certainly agree with you about the readers!

Posted by John, a resident of Midtown,
on May 23, 2014 at 6:22 pm

James Franco is a self absorbed joke. Who cares about him?

Posted by Resident, a resident of Community Center,
on May 25, 2014 at 10:14 am

A friend of mine spontaneously texted me suggesting we go see Palo Alto yesterday. So we went to the 7:15 at the Guild. The theater was almost empty. My opinion is that going to see this movie was a complete waste of time and money. I've never met people like those portrayed in the movie. In almost every scene people are smoking (cigarettes or marijuana). In the evening they are getting wasted via liquor or drugs. The vulgarity of the language is incredible. The folks in front of me walked out after 20 mins, and others were walking out as the movie played out . The movie Palo Alto was a complete disappointment.

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on May 25, 2014 at 10:47 am

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Dear Resident,
Thanks for reading and commenting. I had the same impression of the movie, and it sounds like the word is getting out if the theater was almost empty on a Saturday night!

Posted by Hmmm, a resident of East Palo Alto,
on May 27, 2014 at 1:45 pm

Hmmm is a registered user.

Kids lie to parents often. Even "good" kids who are successful, kind, diligent and involved lie to parents. Some of the cognitive dissonance is because teens lie to adults. The Palo Alto I witnessed growing up, but personally wasn't involved in, has many similarities, unfortunately, to what Franco wrote.

There was my friend with the eating disorder whose mom begged me to keep an eye on her and help her stay healthy. There were the hideous football players and other jocks who bullied and terrorized the school's few Latino males. There was the drunken debauchery, completely amateurish of course, but harmful. It included boys headbutting each other. There was the drunk jock I caught kicking a dog at a party. The entitled, violent jocks who broke in/snuck in to a girls sleepover when there was a college student babysitter there, and one of them jumped the babysitter while she was arguing with the other drunk jock to leave. Those are just a few of the things that I saw and will never forget. Luckily, they're outweighed by the good stuff, but the bad stuff was damaging to all involved.

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on May 27, 2014 at 6:52 pm

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Dear Hmmm,
Thank you for reading and commenting. How disturbing to witness such atrocious behavior as a teen and not be able to confide in a parent.

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