Tribeca: ‘Palo Alto’ reveals high school’s harsh reality

courtesy of Rabbit Bandini Productions
Courtesy of Rabbit Bandini Productions

Gia Coppola makes her directorial debut with “Palo Alto,” a teenage movie for the ages that captures the romantic drama, heightened emotions and complex affairs of adolescence.

Based on James Franco’s short story collection “Palo Alto Stories,” which narrates the lives of high school students in the titular California community, Coppola’s film centers on a group of hard-partying, reckless, ennui-afflicted teenagers. This crowd includes the introspective and artistic Teddy (Jack Kilmer) and the suave and dangerous Fred (Nat Wolff) alongside April (Emma Roberts), a shy virginal soccer player who becomes involved with her older coach, Mr. B (James Franco).

At a question-and-answer panel, the director and cast spoke about the process of filming “Palo Alto.”

“When my book came out, I thought of making an adaptation, and I wanted to work with someone who would bring this work into other areas and do something I’d never think of,” Franco said. “I wanted someone to take the book and give it a new sensibility and a new form.”


Franco said Coppola fit the bill for what he was envisioning.

“I saw some of Coppola’s photos and I just had a feeling that she was the right person,” Franco said. “I asked her to do it and five years later we’re here. I told her to pick the stories from my book that spoke to her and start fleshing those out. She interwove them and gave them a unified arch in a way that I wouldn’t have been able to do.”

Submerging audiences in the painful and graphic realities of the modern high school experience, “Palo Alto” covers controversial topics ranging from drinking and driving to drug abuse and gang rape, all navigated artfully by Coppola. Superb acting helps, with electrifying and heartbreaking performances from up-and-coming actors Wolff and Levin.

“Palo Alto” is a rough, bruising jab to the nerves and hearts of both its characters and the audience. It is a film about adolescence that does not evoke nostalgia, but rather shines a light on the parts adults either do not remember or were trying to forget.

Franco’s stories about adolescence caught Coppola’s attention. Before this project, she said she was hesitant to direct.

“I’ve always loved movies and it was always around me, but I guess I was always intimidated to go into that field,” Coppola said. “I really loved Franco’s book. He believed in me and he made it an environment that I could feel free and comfortable.”

Later on, Roberts opened up about what was appealing about her role in the film.

“What I loved about this script was that it was just very subtle where a lot of the screen action happens,” Roberts said. “There’s so much emotion in the stage direction and not so much the dialogue. You don’t always know what to say and what everyone else will say and there will always be a lot of awkward moments. Gia let those moments sit there.”

“Palo Alto” is a dark film, but the acting and direction are successful in giving the impression of real events. Franco’s work is not specific to the affluent Californian city, depicting drama that is universally understandable to anyone who is or was a teenager.

A version of this article appeared in the Wednesday, April 30 print edition. Mohamed Hassan is a staff writer. Ife Olujobi is film editor. Email them at [email protected]

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