Good lord, not another Coppola.
The writer-director of “Palo Alto” is Gia Coppola, the 27-year-old granddaughter of Francis, niece of Sofia and Roman, and daughter of Gian-Carlo, who died in a boating accident in 1986. Clearly, something is in the vines up there at the Coppola Winery in Sonoma County, because this adaptation of James Franco’s short story collection of the same name — more about that in a bit — has a poetic eye and a bruised, sympathetic sensibility. They don’t fully cohere, and sometimes “Palo Alto” drifts as much as its characters do. But it’s a solid debut, and it gets to the heart of suburban adolescence in ways that slicker, more ostensibly mature movies don’t. That includes Aunt Sofia’s “The Bling Ring.”
Franco’s 2010 book — part of the actor’s apparent mission to prove he can do everything, if not well — was a series of interconnected tales about teenage debauchery and despair in sunny Lotus-land, set in Franco’s hometown. Coppola’s screenplay tightens the focus to a handful of the book’s kids while sketching a convincing larger portrait of privilege and anomie. Think “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” — that 1982 classic is directly referenced at one point — without the laughs but with twice the sensitivity.
The two central characters are April (Emma Roberts) and Teddy (Jack Kilmer), the former a nice girl flirting with bad behavior, the latter a budding artist who keeps screwing up. They love each other — you sense it’s been going on since grammar school — but are too shy behind their masks of cynicism to do much about it. Instead, Teddy cruises the streets and indulges in petty acts of vandalism with his bad-news best friend Fred (Nat Woolff), while April gets drawn into the orbit of her soccer coach Mr. B (Franco), a divorced dad who knows exactly the right things to say to a smart, disaffected high school girl.
Roberts is Julia’s niece and Eric’s daughter, of course, and Kilmer is Val’s son — dad has a weirdly funny cameo as April’s pothead stepfather. All those Tinseltown connections (they include the director’s great-aunt Talia Shire as a college guidance counselor and Don “Father Guido Sarducci” Novello as an art teacher) are both beside the point and not, since “Palo Alto” is very much about the glamorous party that seems to be happening everywhere but here. Kilmer is especially good as Teddy, a gentle observer who hasn’t yet found his voice (it’s why he keeps borrowing Fred’s, to his ongoing grief). The kid has his father’s eyes and off-kilter poise but not the arrogance; The actor, like the character he plays, is still sketching in the details of himself.
Also making strong impressions are Woolff, who brings unpredictable energy to a standard hothead-best-friend role, and Zoe Levin as Emily, a dim, sexually available classmate. The latter is the kind of role most teen movies would judge harshly, but Coppola and Levin recognize that Emily is as desperate for connection as everyone else. Aside from Mr. B, in fact, “Palo Alto” is strikingly judgment-free as it coolly explores a landscape in which everyone has everything except each other.
Coppola still has much to learn and she can lean on visual clichés like the close-ups of toys in Emily’s bedroom when she has sex with Fred. The soundtrack of moody, obscure rock songs feels influenced by the filmmaker’s aunt; if the younger Coppola isn’t careful, her future projects may settle into that artful refusal to commit that infects Sofia’s lesser films.
Still, “Palo Alto” has a strong feel for youthful fumblings that fall between self-pity and self-definition, and it’s especially wise about the parallel world of American adolescents — a nighttime universe parents know nothing of and which kids themselves can barely describe, so busy are they living it. The concept of “goodness” crops up repeatedly — April says she “tries to be good,” Teddy has to learn to distance himself from his friend’s malevolent rage — but what it means is fuzzy, and the bromides the grown-ups offer ring ridiculously false. What does it take to find out for yourself? The movie, and the young woman making it, watch and wait.Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.