« Tap to Next Article »

Zimbio Flash Film Review: 'Palo Alto'

Emma Roberts is at her best in this dreamy high school drama.

Emma Roberts in Palo Alto. (Tribeca Films)
Emma Roberts in Palo Alto. (Tribeca Films)

SUMMARY: High school life in Silicon Valley, California as seen through the eyes of a group of friends, Palo Alto is a meditation on the four year dream that is the American high school experience. April (Emma Roberts) is the shy but beautiful soccer player who explores an affair with her coach (James Franco). Teddy (Jack Kilmer) is the skateboarder who loves her. Fred (Nat Wolff) is Teddy's best friend and a blossoming psycho. And Emily (Zoe Levin) is the sexual scientist, experimenting with just about everyone. The episodic story lines merge and merge again weaving an incestuous tale of love, regret, heartbreak, and friendship. 

What Works?

another talented Coppola

Gia Coppola's debut as writer/director is an impressive one. Palo Alto isn't perfect, but the look and tone of the film are professional and exacting, if not original. Coppola's style mirrors her aunt, Sofia's, both in pace and deliberation. Intimacy is another term to keep in mind. When the kids of Palo Alto say or do something awkward, the camera doesn't cut away like a punchline. It lingers to see the aftermath. As in life, words have powerful consequences and the director wants to show us their effect.


Palo Alto begins with Teddy and Fred in a car smoking weed. They talk in insults and propose hypothetical questions to pass the time. "What would you do if..." This brand of conversation should ring especially true for any American who went to high school in their hometown in the past 100 years. Dudes make each other laugh by busting each others' balls and imagining crazy scenarios. Coppola's script portrays female conversation just as accurately. The girls talk sex and wonder aloud how they look and how they imagine others see them. They also lie, something essential in any realistic teen conversation (the boys do the same). The product of the script's poignancy is, like the camera work, intimacy, but it's also endearing. 

Emma Roberts Owns It

Zimbio Flash Film Review: 'Palo Alto'

More than anything else, Palo Alto will be remembered for Roberts' performance as a good girl trying to earn her spikes. She brings an innocence to April that belies her burgeoning sexuality. Lip syncing in her room and dealing with her doting mother (Coppola's own mom, Jacqui Getty) she could be 13. But the 23-year-old actress defies appearances. She subtly encourages the affair with her coach and randomly hooks up with a classmate when the guy she wants disappears with a different girl. April underscores Palo Alto's main theme of female sexuality, the power it has over men, and the girls in the film coming to this realization. Roberts manages to pull off all the angles.

Zimbio Flash Film Review: 'Palo Alto'
James Franco in Palo Alto. (Tribeca Film)

What Doesn't Work?

A Lack of originality

Palo Alto brings virtually nothing new to the teen angst genre. Coppola is a great imitator of styles (her aunt's, Gus Van Sant's, Larry Clark's), but it keeps her film from being unique. Instead of taking any chances, she plays it safe stylistically. It's the difference between a good movie and a great one.  


For a bunch of high school kids, this is a sullen bunch. Coppola spends so much time showing us how seriously these kids take themselves, she forgets to let them have fun. It's a surprising development given the fact much of the film takes place at one party or another. The camera weaves through the crowd in slow-motion, Spring Breakers-style, and watches the teenage hedonism, but few of the main characters take part. When we find Teddy or April, they're sitting alone in silence or complaining about how this sucks or that sucks. It's not false, but the film would be better paced with more comic relief. Teenagers are funny, let them be.

FRED doesn't fit

Zimbio Flash Film Review: 'Palo Alto'

This is a tough call because Nat Wolff shows a new side as the troubled teen Fred. He's a talented actor, but Fred seems severely out of place next to his vanilla classmates. It's as if Coppola plucked a Harmony Korine character out of Kids and threw him in the middle of her suburban film. If the story were more light-hearted, Fred would probably get laughs when he's seen smashing bullets with a hammer in the middle of a party, but since the tone is foreboding, we're left with diagnostics. Does he have ADHD, schizophrenia? It's anyone's guess, but this kid should be in therapy, not driving around smoking and drinking all night. Fred is even called out by Teddy in the movie. He tells him he tries too hard to seem crazy. Amen.

THe End is contrived

Without spoiling anything, the ending of Palo Alto at least gives a context for Fred's presence in the film. Coppola needed a way to end the movie and Fred provides it in a stunning scene that looks great but has little resonance. Fred's weirdness explodes in a final extreme act that will either ring true for you or not. It didn't for me.

Final Grade: B


RELEASE DATE: May 9, 2014 [Limited]

DIRECTOR: Gia Coppola

WRITERS: Gia Coppola (screenplay), based on the book Palo Alto: Stories by James Franco.

CAST: Emma Roberts, Jack Kilmer, Nat Wolff, James Franco, Zoe Levin, Olivia Crocicchia, Claudia Levy, Val Kilmer, Chris Messina

MUSIC: Devonté Hynes


RUNTIME: 100 minutes

NETFLIX WOULD ALSO RECOMMEND: The Bling Ring, Paranoid Park, The Myth of the American Sleepover, Dazed and Confused, Elephant, Wassup Rockers, Spring Breakers

Trailers, Clips, Songs, & Posters


Zimbio Flash Film Review: 'Palo Alto'
(Tribeca Film)

View Gia Coppola Pictures »