Centerpiece, San Francisco International Film Festival 57
In Sophia Coppola’s The Bling Ring (2013), Katie Chang plays one of the ring leaders. As I said in a review on this site, she’s mean, nasty and a bit of a “dragon lady” but who cares? The true-to-life casting gives the movie an authenticity that Gia Coppola’s new film, Palo Alto, lacks. Early on in her directing début, one of the lead characters, Fred, jokes about how a boy in their class killed himself “because he was Asian.” The other Asian (and Latino) kids must have killed themselves as well because none show up in the movie, not even in the background cast, much less as one of the leads. There is a teacher (Janet Song as Mrs. Stevenson), conspicuous in the all-white cast. I point this out because, according to the 2010 census, Palo Alto was 27 per cent Asian, a figure that has undoubtedly increased.
Even with that demographic disconnect, the film has its charms. With cinematography by Autumn Durald, Palo Alto is visually stunning, no doubt influenced by Coppola’s training as a still photographer. Director of Programming Rachel Rosen noted Coppola’s “unique vision and voice.” The indie rock soundtrack that she put together is also compelling. Based on James Franco’s Palo Alto Stories, Coppola creates an idealized suburb of years past, albeit one with I-phones. Aside from the technology, the kids from Rebel Without a Cause (1955) or American Graffiti (1973) would fit in here. In the New York Times, Manola Dargis writes:
The kids in Gia Coppola’s “Palo Alto” move as through a dream. It’s a drifty, appealing story, set in the Northern California city that gives the movie its title, about that twilight period between childhood’s end and the start of young adulthood. Here, under wavering palm trees, teenagers slip through homes and streets with the vagueness that comes with certain visions of adolescence. These aren’t the tireless achievers cramming for tests, and preparing for college and the conformity to come. They are instead the anxious children who have — since the likes of Holden Caulfield and James Dean’s rebel — defined American adolescence as a state of poetic confusion.
That’s true, but I don’t recall Jim Stark from Rebel making racist remarks as Fred does repeatedly. He’s a thoroughly repellant character who chainsaws neighborhood oak trees for laughs. It’s a mystery why he’s best friends with Teddy (Jack Kilmer), the heart and soul of the movie. Perhaps, they were kindergarten classmates and have stuck together ever since. In his first film, Kilmer has an appealing naturalness. The terrific young actor/musician Nat Wolfe plays Fred with a relentless hyper-kinetic energy. Their off-kilter friendship is the main story. As to be expected, the subplot about the illicit relationship between soccer coach, Mr. B. (Franco) and April (Emma Roberts), one of his star players and baby sitter, is what’s gotten most of the advance attention. That crushes happen between students and teachers is a given, but Mr. B. is a predator. As played by Franco, he’s a charming one. Roberts plays April as his ideal prey. Coppola noted the chance meeting with Franco that led to her adapting his book,
David D’Arcy in the San Francisco Chronicle writes: “Last summer, Franco launched a plan to finance three more features based on stories from ‘Palo Alto’ . . . ” Let’s hope that the Bay Area’s self-evident diversity is given more than lip service in the next ones.