Palo Alto: The kids aren’t alright

The Coppola filmmaking dynasty grows with Palo Alto, which marks the feature debut of Francis’ granddaughter Gia Coppola, who directed and adapted James Franco’s short-story collection Palo Alto Stories.

The film is yet another portrait of adolescent angst and teen rebellion, not unlike last year’s The Bling Ring, which was (coincidentally) made by Gia’s aunt, Sofia Coppola.

Like that film, there’s a certain emotional hollowness at the center of Palo Alto – one that, fortunately, is partially filled by the stellar performances of Emma Roberts and newcomer Jack Kilmer in key roles.

The young residents of the titular California community are self-absorbed and self-indulgent. They take their material wealth for granted and are constantly looking for excitement, usually getting into trouble along the way. They’re scarcely different from their parents and elders, who are equally self-absorbed and therefore no help whatsoever.

Roberts plays April, a “good girl” more practical than most of her peers. Kilmer, the son of actors Val Kilmer and Joanne Whalley, plays Teddy, whose rebellious streak is constantly stroked by his manic best buddy Fred (Nat Wolff), who always seems on the verge of mania and violence. There’s a definite connection between April and Teddy, but both are continually distracted by other matters that keep them apart.

There’s a distinctly episodic quality to the proceedings and a lot of characters to keep track of, which sometimes interrupts the flow of the narrative momentum. Yet Coppola works well with her actors. In addition to Roberts and Kilmer, Zoe Levin is first-rate as Emily, whose promiscuous reputation (fully deserved) comes with emotionally painful side effects.

James Franco, also one of the film’s “presenters,” plays a girls’ soccer coach and single father who’s rather stuck in adolescence himself, Val Kilmer (Jack’s real-life dad) briefly appears to amusing effect as April’s pot-smoking stepfather, and an eclectic cast includes Chris Messina, Don Novello, Colleen Camp, Marshall Bell, Janet Jones Gretzky and her real-life daughter Emma (in her screen debut), and Coppola’s great-aunt Talia Shire, briefly seen as a high-school guidance counselor. Grandpa Francis is here too, voicing a judge who sentences Teddy to community service for his drunk-driving.

The characters have been well realized, yet the overall story never quite congeals. Some scenes in Palo Alto are enormously observant and emotionally resonant, others don’t take full advantage of the satirical implications, and some simply taper off to nowhere. But there’s no question that Gia Coppola is a talent to watch. This is hardly unsuccessful debut, and in many ways an impressive and encouraging one. Bigger and better things are in store.

Palo Alto is scheduled to open Friday