Thursday, May 8, 2014
James Franco's Pervy Soccer Coach Act Isn't Enough to Boost the Aggressively Dull 'PALO ALTO'
When I was in high school there was a group of kids who often hung out in the bathroom smoking cigarettes, ragging on each other and debating about which classes they were going to skip out on next. They were young, privileged and without a care in the world--about anything. I never could relate to them and--perhaps more importantly--I never really wanted to.
These are the types of characters that permeate through Gia Coppola's directorial debut, PALO ALTO. The permanently unimpressed, self-involved teenage set who wallow in their own apathy and untapped potential as they relentlessly search for complexity. Emma Roberts stars as April, a shy high school soccer player struggling to fit in with her aimless peers and navigate an emotionally vacant home led by her pot-loving mother (Jacqui Getty) and stepdad (Val Kilmer). Truthfully, she doesn't fit in to any aspect of her world but suddenly gets hit with the pressure to follow a path--pick a vocation, go to college and become something or succumb to this young misfit crowd that is speeding down a one-way highway to Less Than Zero land.
Just when things couldn't get any more confusing for her, April gets involved with her much older soccer coach Mr. B (James Franco). Well, not so much "involved" as it dangerously escalates from an innocent babysitting gig to becoming his teenage plaything. Preying on her innocence and telling her how she's different from the other girls and deserves an older man like himself is Mr. B's game. While Franco is effectively pervy and manages to make every scene he's in suffocatingly uncomfortable to watch (his crooked smile alone is nausea-inducing), there is something about his performance that drew me to him more than anyone else in the movie. When all the other characters are so preoccupied with their own air of entitlement entrenched in insecurity, none of them inspire as strong reactions from me as Franco's Mr. B (even though that reaction is repulsion). They just sort of exist.
In fact, I kept wondering when themes like suicide, sexual identity and drug addiction were goign to pop up because these are the default tropes often used in teenage melodrama like this that basks in the derivative. It's not particularly entertaining or engaging to watch it unfold, and Coppola doesn't do much to create textured characterization or nicely timed comedic sequences. It's unwavering but also dull. She takes very little chances in her adaptation of Franco's short story collection of the same name, and her quest for stoicism comes off more bored and indifferent than anything else. The question of why we should even care about these characters goes unanswered. What makes them so fascinating?
As I expected, some of the melodrama staples mentioned above finally rear their ugly heads in a series of vignettes lead by Jack Kilmer, Nat Wolff and Zoe Levin. Teddy (Kilmer) is the unpopular kid who may have the best intentions, but always ends up mucking them up. Fred (Wolff) is Teddy's angsty frenemy, a perennially baked loser who you're never quite sure whether he's actually troubled or is desperate for attention. Should you empathize with him, or is he just a pesky gnat infesting each scene without adding any genuine gravitas? Emily (Levin) sort of absorbs several of the familiar themes perpetuated throughout the movie, but does manage to best portray the idea of teenage girlhood wrought with unmet expectations and low self-esteem.
With PALO ALTO, Coppola seems to try to recreate her aunt's (Sofia Coppola) signature approach to blah-ness, but fails to offer a similar connection for the audience, something that pulls us in to their stories without turning them into caricatures. While all the young actors are committed to their characters (though none of them particularly stand out), this film will likely drown in its own nothingness as far more thought-provoking teenage fare continues to prevail.
Rating: C (** out of *****)
PALO ALTO is in theaters in New York City and Los Angeles on Friday, May 9th.