Palo Alto
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Any filmmaker can tell you that it’s not easy to break into the industry. It takes hard work, talent, and (most importantly) a whole lot of luck. Of course, it seems that it also helps if you happen to be related to Francis Ford Coppola—and if you have the talent to back up your famous last name, as Palo Alto director Gia Coppola clearly does.

Based on the short stories by James Franco, Palo Alto stars Emma Roberts as April, a pretty high school student who puts a lot of effort into looking like she just doesn’t care. As she navigates her way through a teenage world filled with homework, soccer practice, and wild high school parties, she finds herself struggling to choose between two crushes: lovable stoner Teddy (Jack Kilmer) and her soccer coach, Mr. B. (James Franco).

Meanwhile, Teddy is dealing with his own issues. Encouraged by his wild and crazy best friend, Fred (Nat Wolff), he once again finds himself in danger of juvenile detention. And as he works off his community service sentence, he struggles to turn his life around.

It clear that the newest filmmaking Coppola has been paying close attention to her aunt Sofia’s work—because Palo Alto is a chatty movie that’s light on action. But although it’s filled with bored, self-obsessed teenagers whose trite and tiresome lives seem to revolve around sex, drugs, and parties, there’s (fortunately) something more going on beneath the surface. The young Coppola focuses her attention on characters that have a little more depth to them—the conflicted kids who know what’s right and struggle to do it—and she handles her characters in a way that’s often slow and meandering yet still captivating.

April and Teddy, especially, are charming, likable characters—but both are too naive, too misguided, too desperate to be liked to stand up for themselves. At times, the characters all seem to be caught in the same downward spiral of self-destructive behavior—whether it’s April’s attraction to her coach or Teddy’s reckless driving. And it’s no wonder, considering that the adults in their lives seem to be every bit as destructive and self-obsessed as their peers. Somewhere, though, in the midst of the endless parties and oppressive peer pressure, some of the young characters manage to make grown-up decisions, which helps to wrap up these interwoven stories in a way that’s generally satisfying.

Like the other members of her filmmaking family, Gia Coppola definitely has her share of advantages over other up-and-coming young filmmakers. But, in her first feature, she uses those advantages well—to create a thoughtful drama that could very well mark the beginning of a long and successful career.

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