Palo Alto

August 16, 2014
Palo Alto

There never seems to be a week in Sydney without some sort of film festival. Although the French brand reigns supreme in terms of size and popularity, there are many well-regarded smaller events. For instance, KOFFIA – the 5th annual Korean Film Festival In Australia, has just opened, and will run until 21 August, before travelling to other cities. The close of KOFFIA coincides with the opening of AICE – the Australia Israel Cultural Exchange – which includes the 11th annual Israeli Film Festival (21 August – 4 September).

Every year the Korean festival gets a bit bigger, as might be expected from this most culturally ambitious of nations. Under the theme, Some Like it Spicy, the Koreans are presenting 19 features, covering a broad range of genres. It’s a small taste of the yearly production of a national film industry that continues to make inroads into the global market.

The Israeli festival arrives in the midst of the Gaza conflict, which has already led to calls to boycott the event. Personally, I’m not in favour of such tactics which discriminate against every individual filmmaker, regardless of their political beliefs. Most of the Israeli films I’ve seen in recent years have been broadly sympathetic to the sufferings of the Palestinians. Such movies are routinely denounced for being “anti-Israel” by the extremist minority, so it would be shame to anticipate such reactions and boycott the films bigots would like to see banned.

It may be purely coincidental that the 11th Israeli Film Festival is being held at the same time as the 11th Arab Film Festival (14 – 31 August). Perhaps the organisers believe they are addressing different target audiences, but there’s no reason why the general public shouldn’t take an interest in all kinds of cinema.

The pattern is repeated with the Jewish International Film Festival (30 Oct -17 November), which coincides with the Palestinian Film Festival (6-16 November). Right in the middle comes the 3rd Persian International Film Festival (11-14 September), which includes only six features – a fabulous haul considering the oppressive conditions under which Iranian directors are forced to work.

So if you’re tired of the endless procession of superhero flicks being churned out by the Hollywood Studios, please note that all the thorny political issues of the Middle East are being ventilated at the movies over the next few months. On the other hand, there’s always Postman Pat: The Movie, which I’m told is “the only major children’s film being released in August”. If this is true, the alarming implication is that movies such as Guardians of the Galaxy and Hercules must be for grown-ups.

Among this week’s new releases the stand-out is Palo Alto, the first film directed by Gia Coppola, 27-year-old granddaughter of Francis Ford Coppola. It’s such an astonishingly confident debut one feels like asking young Gia if grandpa has been helping out with her homework.

Nevertheless, the Coppola family has been immersed in the cinema for decades, and it’s no surprise that movie-making seems to be in the blood.

Gia’s aunt, Sofia, managed to make one masterpiece, Lost in Translation (2003), but has never come close to repeating this feat. That film had a very personal subtext, and Gia Coppola has said that the reason she wanted to make a movie from the Palo Alto stories written by actor, James Franco, is because she “connected” so well with the material. Like Sofia, if she continues making films she will be obliged to step away from this comfort zone at some stage. That’s when the director may be separated from the dilettante.

Although it turns the microscope on a small segment of teenage life in affluent middle-class California, Palo Alto addresses topics that will be familiar to almost everyone. It follows the lives of a group of young people at the end of their school years, as they confront the anxieties of life beyond the classroom. For the time being, the big issues that have to be negotiated are sex, booze, drugs and peer pressure.

Teddy (Jack Kilmer) is a good-hearted, sensitive boy, who finds himself hanging out with the reckless, self-destructive Fred (Nat Wolff). Every time we see them together in the car, we know it’s going to end badly for Teddy. Every time we see Fred enter a room, we know that something terrible is about to happen. It’s only when  we meet Fred’s father that we begin to realise what lies behind his bizarre behaviour. Unhappy at home, Fred has developed the predator’s ability to find the perfect victim, whether it be mild-mannered Teddy, or blonde-haired Emily (Zoe Levin), who has become the passive sex toy of the group.

Even Teddy has been on the receiving end of a blow job from Emily, but he has an old-fashioned crush on April (Emma Roberts), another sensitive type, who avoids the binges and promiscuity that her girlfriends seem to enjoy. April’s stumbling block is Mr. B. (James Franco) the soccer coach, who pays her for babysitting and takes an interest in her as a person. To the detached observer, his interest seems to be chiefly confined to getting into her shorts, but to April he portrays himself as a sad divorcee who is a bit hopeless with women. While she is not stupid, April soon finds herself being drawn into Mr. B’s web.

At the parties in the big, suburban houses, with their swimming pools and patios, it’s one long saga of teenage angst. Loveless sex, binge drinking and violence are the weapons of choice against boredom and insecurity. Much of the film is shot in a kind of moody twilight, suggestive of the blurred priorities of the characters’ lives. Adults barely exist in this world – the teenagers’ parents being so childish and narcissistic that family life is experienced as a void.

Teddy and April are the innocents in this story, both reluctant to let go of childhood. For Fred and Emily, there is nothing to cling to at home, and nothing in the future. The moment is all that counts, and that entails a search for strong sensations with no regard to the consequences. It’s a familiar story, but given a tremendous sense of immediacy by a rookie director and a group of actors who are young enough to remember the agonies of adolescence.

Palo Alto
Directed by Gia Coppola
Written by Gia Coppola, based on short stories by James Franco
Starring Emma Roberts, Jack Kilmer, Nat Wolff, James Franco, Zoe Levin, Chris Messina, Val Kilmer
USA, rated MA 15+, 96 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 16th August, 2014.