Review: Gia Coppola’s ‘Palo Alto’ is a sad and lovely look at teenage life

It would be easy to think that the last name Coppola is a shortcut to becoming a filmmaker, but that would be dismissive, and honestly, sort of backwards. At this point, living up to that last name must be an intimidating prospect, but with her first film, Gia Coppola proves herself to be a deeply empathic filmmaker with a great sense of atmosphere. “Palo Alto,” based on a collection of short stories by James Franco, is a lovely debut film, and a strong expression of just how it feels to be a teenager struggling to figure out your place in the world.

Forget about narrative. Forget about whether things add up in a typical A-B-C fashion. What makes “Palo Alto” special is the way it captures certain feelings, and it's not an easy thing. There were moments in the film where I found myself almost completely transported back to those long, weird, woozy nights where Teenage Drew made bad decisions and just plain didn't care. Something as simple as a party in a house where someone's parents are out of town becomes an excuse for Coppola to dig deep into the still-nascent souls of these aimless kids, and while she is very frank about showing how the currency of sex is such a casual thing for them on the surface, she's also very good at showing us the ways it actually impacts them in some permanent way.

One thing that helps is that she cast actual teenagers, and I can honestly say I've never felt older than I did watching this. I think of high school students as being close to adulthood, but watching them here, they struck me as kids. They are so young, so vulnerable, so raw and open and real, and it's obvious that Coppola feels a deep connection to all of them. Even when a character like Fred (Nat Wolff) is revealed as broken and angry and incapable of connecting to Emily (Zoe Levin), this beautiful, wounded young woman who sees casual sexual encounters as her one hope to connect to anyone, Coppola doesn't judge them. She shows you the simmering confusion that drives Fred and the chasm of need at the center of Emily, and she makes it clear that she feels for both of them.

Teddy (Jack Kilmer) is a basically decent kid who can't help but do some terrible things out of nothing more malicious than boredom, and as the last name would suggest, this is indeed the son of Val Kilmer and Joanne Whalley-Kilmer, and there are moments when depending on which angle Coppola shoots him from, you can see distinct hints of each of his parents. He's got a great easy charisma on-screen, and he does a great job of playing both sides of Teddy. When he's being a good kid, he projects a simple sweetness, and you can see just how young he is. And on those occasions Fred manages to talk him into something terrible, which is frequently, there's a sort of dead-eyed amorality that he drops into easily. It's a surprisingly rich characterization considering this is his first lead in a film.

Emma Roberts plays April, and she's got some deeply tricky material to play as well. She's seen by many of her peers as a good girl, the perpetual virgin, but she's got her secrets. The main one involves Mr. B, her soccer coach, played by James Franco. I'll give Franco credit for not overtly overplaying Mr. B. The scenes between him and April are upsetting and inappropriate and infuriating, but even in those moments, Coppola doesn't make any of it easy. Mr. B is gross and predatory and really not wired correctly, but Coppola gives us a sense of the weird arrested loneliness that drives him and that seems like such a real threat to his own son, the little boy that April babysits. And in April, we get an indelible portrait of a young woman at that point where she is aware of her newly-mature sexual identity and terrified by the implications and the responsibilities that come with it.

Val Kilmer beams in from his home planet for a few very funny scenes, Don Novello makes a strong impression as an enthusiastic but possibly insane art teacher, and Chris Messina paints a full portrait of a closeted father wrestling with his own worst instincts in one memorable scene. Coppola's work with the entire cast is impressive, and her background in photography pays off in the way she uses the fine details of the characters and their world to suggest more than she ever directly says. The film's got a perfectly-picked soundtrack, and Autumn Durald's cinematography is evocative and emotional. “Palo Alto” is the sort of debut picture that makes me eager to see how Gia Coppola is going to grow and change as an artist, but it's more than just a demonstration of potential. She arrives fully formed, and this is a definitely a film that has to go on the short list of movies that give us an accurate look at the secret world of teenagers.

“Palo Alto” opens in limited release today and then expands throughout May.