Gia Coppola’s directorial debut, “Palo Alto,” opening tomorrow at the Hippodrome State Theatre, is in some ways a mix of “Mean Girls” and “The Catcher in the Rye.” It’s a coming-of-age film that frankly addresses the sex, drugs, despondency and debauchery of adolescence, while at the same time mourning the loss of its characters’ childhoods.
But unlike those two standby specimens of the “young adult” genre, Coppola’s film ultimately seems to call bulls**t on the mythology of “growing up.” Regardless of age, no one in the film seems to grow up very much at all. Kids, teenagers and adults behave indistinguishably, making this touching story about American teenagers into a more profound elegy for a youth that everybody wants, but that nobody ever really had.
Emma Roberts plays April, the pretty-but-plain girl who dresses like a doll and wears cotton underwear coded with the days of the week. She catches the eye of her soccer coach Mr. B., played by a creepy James Franco (who wrote the film’s namesake short-story collection), and of her timid classmate, Teddy (Jack Kilmer). Things have apparently fizzled out between Teddy and April before the film begins, but an awkward encounter at a party suggests there’s something still there — at least that’s what we hope.
Opposite Teddy and April are Emily (Zoe Levin) and Fred (Nat Wolff): one, the soft-spoken girl who’s at her loneliest after she gets laid, the other, a loud, leader-of-the-pack kind of troublemaker whose bite might actually be worse than his bark. Looking for different things, the two collide in ways that call into question the cost of controlling your own loneliness.
That’s basically the “plot” of the film: Lonely people collide with other lonely people, making for 100 minutes that are frequently boring. Teens hook up with adults, adults prey on emotionally sensitive teens, and disgruntled delinquents draw dicks in the pages of children’s books. In every case, someone is searching for the youth they lost or destroying the youth that others have. Adults and adolescents become interchangeable, and the limits of “youth” recede.
Despite its association with Brat Pack films (sonically evoked by Blood Orange’s Devonté Hynes shiny, synth-heavy score), this is not the tale of misfits coming together. Coppola keeps us from indulging in any cliche climaxes that might suggest otherwise. A tender reunion between Teddy and April, for example, deflates when Teddy confesses he cut down the tree they carved a heart on. It doesn’t really phase April, anyway.
Transactions like this are sure to resonate with irony-obsessed millennials conditioned by a social media world where things are never quite what they seem. But, they don’t always work effectively. When April has sex for the first time, the shot of her little girl underwear —labeled “Thursday”—seems hackneyed and overwrought. The effect would have been stronger if Coppola hadn’t staged Emily and Fred’s sex scene in a room full of dolls and doilies — similar signifiers of resilient childhood.
That said, Coppola’s only stumble in this film is that she tries too hard to be self-conscious and postmodern. She certainly accomplishes both, but excessively so — an accusation you could levy against any young artist, and one that she’ll surely outgrow.
The film runs through June 12. Student tickets are $5.50 for all showings.
[A version of this story ran on page 8 on 6/5/2014 under the headline "‘Palo Alto’ opens Friday at The Hipp"]