Palo Alto, California, is not that different from the town you grew up in; April, Teddy, Emily, and Fred all feel like classmates you remember from your own high school experience. April (Emma Roberts) was that girl who fooled around with your teacher under the pretence of “babysitting”; Teddy (Jack Kilmer) was the sensitive, tortured rebel, not without as much as searching for his cause; Emily (Zoe Levin) had the reputation of being a ridiculously easy, consenting source of some “fun”; and Fred (Nat Wolff) was the class clown who goofed off constantly, making his craziness feel like a deliberate choice to define or label himself, in order to mask his insecurities and feelings of powerlessness. In identifying some of these childhood archetypes, Gia Coppola succeeds in her execution of what is probably Palo Alto’s most important goal: to capture the unique generational characteristics of today’s youth.
While Palo Alto illustrates characters who feel real and familiar, all the slang and jargon they use is completely current and on point, but even more impressively, accurately suggests the way in which young people speak to and relate to each other. Compounding the strength of the dialogue with dynamic song choices, Coppola endows Palo Alto with a brilliant aural design. Joining Carmine and Sofia, Gia is further proof of the Coppola family’s innate musical ear. Not only does she carefully use music that is relevant and accurate to what today’s youth would listen to, she also complements it with scene and montage. In a scene where the central teenage protagonists attend a house party, Die Antwoord’s “Enter the Ninja” is used to energize the scenario and stress a tone of rebellion, helping to develop the theme of adolescent frustration and restlessness.
Of the four teenage leads, Emily is perhaps the most resonant character, even if her story is fumbled the most. As a teenager who sleeps with any boy who will show her the slightest bit of attention, she’s looking for love, but she’ll settle for feeling some form of acceptance or appreciation. This circular pattern of behaviour reaches its breaking point once she experiences multiple sexual encounters with Fred. He uses her for cheap carnal gratification, and before long, she is unwilling to submit to his manipulations. The problem is that we never really get to see this change in her attitude arc naturally, so when she eventually protests, it feels too sudden, and her reaction is so extreme that it feels like the action of another person.
While it authentically captures the flavour and identity of today’s youth, and effectively conveys how they communicate with each other, the film is probably too jaded and critical of their relationships with adults. Palo Alto cannot resist the temptation to depict any adult-teenager friendship as predatory: Mr. B’s advances to seduce April are blatantly transparent, right from the start, and the one time Fred’s father interacts with Teddy, he is eager to get Teddy high, and proceed to flirt with him and play with his hair. But this is not a hopelessly detrimental misstep, as even these problematic elements, collectively, do manage to stress a generation gap and disconnect that suggests yet another reason for adolescent angst.
Though some of her directorial choices innocently descend into error and contrivance, Gia Coppola nevertheless emerges as a capable, talented new filmmaker, and she delivers on her goal to document the feelings of a lost generation. Overall, this is a polished and successful first feature, and many elements of the film already feel instantly iconic and essential to a canon of youth-driven, pop culture-oriented cinema.