James Franco is so overexposed at this point that each project he takes on invites a certain degree of skepticism and eye-rolling, even if it’s perfectly legitimate.
And if nothing else, “Palo Alto” is certainly a respectable endeavor, an adaptation of Franco’s collection of short stories centered on his hometown that’s infused with authenticity by writer-director Gia Coppola.
The filmmaker treats the material seriously, taking great pains to stress the emotions underpinning even the smallest and most seemingly mundane moments while showing the characters enough respect to avoid condescension.
The truth is that the movie could have used a dose of levity or a sprinkling of general lightheartedness from the newest filmmaking Coppola, Francis Ford’s granddaughter. The film is so severe, so dramatic in its portrait of suffering youth that it starts to asphyxiate the audience.
The ensemble is front-lined by Emma Roberts and Jack Kilmer, Val’s son, as teens April and Teddy. They are faced with difficult, decidedly adult experiences over the course of the picture: April must grapple with the advances of soccer coach Mr. B (Franco, looking awfully tired) while Teddy finds himself in hot water after leaving the scene of an accident.
The various story lines are practically immaterial, small parts of a larger whole that’s centered on evoking a sort of painstaking alienation, the detachment that comes with life at a time and in a place that seems like it’s completely wrong.
Coppola incorporates impressionistic close-ups and an abundance of mood lighting to take what might be seen as a spiritualized approach to the subject.
It’s ambitious but ultimately filled with such self-importance, such an inflated sense of the significance of this period in these lives, that you long for a hint of the possibility that there’s something more than this.