May 28 2014 03:12 PM

Gia Coppola's debut film about teen angst is a fitting wake-up call for the me first' generation

Fragile young person Emma Roberts

Despite the various ways people can connect in our social-media-driven world, isolation thrives like never before. Finding emotional satisfaction outside the digital realm seems especially difficult for today's young adults, denizens of a virtual culture in which gratification and self-worth are judged by likes and retweets.

Gia Coppola's debut, Palo Alto, doesn't address these facts of life in alarmist ways; instead, the film sees teenage loneliness and disaffection as quiet personal experiences, hidden and unmentioned to peers or family members. The lack of melodrama (save for a few key scenes) confirms this as a narrative interested in forcing members of the "me first" generation to see themselves as something beyond special.

Three very different high-school students reside at the center of Palo Alto: April (Emma Roberts) is a sweet but reserved soccer player who isn't above attending rowdy parties even though she looks completely out of place. Teddy (Jack Kilmer) and Fred (Nat Wolff ) spend their time smoking pot and hanging out, taking part in petty vandalism and pranks; the former appears to be a good kid heading down the wrong path while the latter is in the early stages of psychopathic behavior.

We get a sense of Coppola's intent early on when Teddy and Fred muse about random rhetorical sit uations in a deserted parking lot. The boredom of being a dissatisfied teenager feels stripped down as the two young men casually bicker over who would be the "king" of their imaginary scenario. Seconds later, Fred punches the gas pedal and sends his car slamming into the cement median a mere two feet away. Why? Because "it felt so good!" 

Like many films, Palo Alto—which opens Friday, May 30—suggests that high-school life is akin to butting one's head repeatedly against the wall. But it makes this appeal so effortlessly that we almost forget these fragile characters are still mired in the process of growing up. They feel too adult for this stage of their existence, too silently troubled with concerns that shouldn't matter like they do.

Sometimes others take advantage of their vulnerability, like when April's lustful coach (James Franco) begins to make inappropriate advances during their study sessions. She likes the attention but knows it feels wrong. It's not just adults who corrupt friend-ships, either; Fred is a hurricane of manipulation and spite with both Teddy and a gorgeous young woman named Emily (Zoe Levin) suffering from terrible self-esteem issues. The weakest of us deserve better.

Coppola explores in interesting ways the power struggle between those who lead and those who follow. Early on, Fred controls Teddy's every move, pressuring him into situations that are stupid and dangerous. April's clique of popular girlfriends dictates their shared social gospel. Both of these characters understand the power of individuality but fear the solace it would bring. If either deviated from the proverbial party platform, it would be an act of subversion.

But that's exactly what's needed in order to transcend the vicious cycle of teenage life. So, what's really at stake in Palo Alto is wisdom; everything boils down to the relationship between mentors and disciples and the motivations that help mold a young person's mind. When April and Teddy realize how much power they have as human beings separate from their online presence and social standing, it enables both to start listening to the right people for a change.

Adapted from Franco's novel Palo Alto Stories, Coppola's film isn't above trite rationalizations. The ending to Fred's one-note narrative is overtly symbolic and a bit simplistic. Still, he may represent a teenager so far removed from reality that no punishment will ever make him realize the finality of his actions.

April's and Teddy's arcs are more cohesive, not only because they're attracted to each other but also because they experience the failures of miscommunication in ways that have tangible consequences. They are the beating heart of Palo Alto. 

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