Palo Alto (2014)

Drinking Game

Take a Drink: anytime a character does

Do a Shot: for whenever Fred acts out

Take a Drink: during each dream-like sequence

Do a Shot: for each sinful moment

By: Matt Conway (A Toast) – 

Out of all the celebrities in Hollywood doing stupid things, it seems like James Franco is one of few whom I actually enjoy seeing their exploits. Franco in general is one of the most out of the box people in the industry, as he does activities such as going to every different college known to man to hitting on seventeen year old girls. He is just an interesting guy, which has lead to him being involved in some interesting film projects.
Even this at least makes me laugh.

Franco has gone on to direct films such as Child of God, Interior: Leather Bar, and Sal. While most of these flicks are flawed, Franco has shown a great deal of talent and an unique perspective. Perhaps Franco’s best work was his novel Palo Alto. The novel, which is a compilation of short stories from Franco’s teen life, was one of the more raw depictions of adolescence in quite some time. After years of gaining appreciation, finally Franco’s great novel is being adapted to film, and it’s one of 2014’s best films.

Palo Alto follows three main characters and their high school lives in Palo Alto, April, a member of the soccer team who begins to have relations with her coach, Teddy, a troubled teen who constantly is drawn in to bad activities by his friend Fred, and Emily, a lonely girl who looks for attention by sleeping with people.

A Toast

The Coppola family has previously been known as a duo of directors with Francis Ford Coppola and Sophia Coppola, but now extended relative Gia Coppola gets a chance to join the family business. While both Francis Ford and Sophia have their fair share of fans, to me they have always been very hit or miss directors, with Francis especially missing with movies of late. Gia’s debut here shows enough promise that she could perhaps be the best director in the family.

Thankfully no one remembers this turd.
Thankfully no one remembers this turd.

Gia, in her first time out, really does a fantastic job. From the first scene to the last, the film has a great sense of atmosphere, with there often times being a great sense of danger and uncertainty as to what is going to happen with these unpredictable teens. Building into the atmosphere itself is the imagery. Gia, teamed up with cinematographer Autumn Durlad, creates a specific look to the film which plays into the mood, with many dream-like sequences building into the emotions the characters are feeling. Add to that a fantastic score by Blood Orange, and Gia Coppola does a fantastic job in creating a specific sense of style, which I can’t wait to see develop in the future.

Performance-wise, this film is all aces. Emma Roberts has always had some talent, but consistently struggled to find a role that fit that talent. Here, Roberts is able to shine with a very naturalistic performances as April. Roberts is able to really capture all the angst and insecurities the character has in a very underlined and understanding way. Co-star Jack Kilmer is also able to do much of the same in his role as Teddy, and the pair’s chemistry together feels natural.

Stealing the film, however, is Nat Wolff as Fred, Teddy’s friend. Wolff, whose upbringing in the industry was starring in some shitty Nickelodeon show, gives what I think is maybe the best performance of the year so far. Wolff really flips the switch here, from being an exaggerated party animal who acts out to someone who is just spiraling out of control. His raw intensity alone is quite powerful, and often times made me scared, while also feeling bad for him. Other supporting actors like James Franco, Zoe Levin, and Val Kilmer are all also quite good, with Franco being scarily convincing as a soccer coach who sleeps with his players.

Good thing he grew up lol.
Good thing he grew up lol.

What really helps in making Palo Alto work so well as a coming of age tale is its realism. All of the characters are different in their own way, but I found myself relating to quite a few of them, with a lot of the characters representing the highs and lows of emotion during a person’s high school years. Even the more out of the box characters like Fred were very much grounded in reality, as I can remember a fair share of people similar to that character.

Adapting James Franco’s short stories is Gia Coppola again, who continues to impress with her effort on the page here. Palo Alto has a great sense of flow and balance to it, and it seems like every character gets their fair share of moments to develop and grow on screen. The script here also features some rather seamless dialogue, with every line feeling authentic and not out-dated in any way.

None of this present.
None of this present.

Palo Alto’s highlight is perhaps its ending, which is one of the most pitch-perfect endings I’ve seen. Each arc gets a great resolution, with there still being a great deal open for the future. The ending to Fred’s arc especially was very powerful, as that character’s waning moments are very haunting, and has still stuck with me to today. It’s rare when movies stick their landing as well as this flick.


In a dead-end tie with The Grand Budapest Hotel (please don’t make me choose), Palo Alto is one of this year’s undiscovered gems. It’s what Larry Clark’s famous Kids never was, an honest portrayal of teenage life, from its high to its lows. After a grand slam effort like this, I can not wait to see what Gia Copploa does next, as she has created a mesmerizing film that leaves its audience thinking about their own past.

About Matt Conway

I love movies and sports and run on sentences. You can find me at a basketball court, the local theater, or napping on a couch somewhere.

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