Monday, May 19, 2014

Palo Alto

James Franco was rejected from my graduate program. It wasn't a matter of celebrity, curiously, as the people in charge had to be told who he was after the fact. It was a matter instead of something like boring writing. It's a point of odd pride for the small number of us who are in the program, of course, though most of us are fans of Franco's acting work.  Pride aside, it's easy to see why the admissions committee ran dubious of Franco's forays into fiction.  When you've run through your share of workshops and taught your share of undergrad fiction courses, there are patterns and subject matters that tend to repeat. The genre of literary fiction is boiled down, in the workshop space, to a few key themes: adultery, inappropriate relationships, sudden climactic acts of violence, suburban disillusionment, dying loved ones. It's not that these aren't engaging themes, it's just that exactitude of the situations too often repeats. Franco's Palo Alto: Stories is something of a grab bag of the above.  If you take a look at "Just Before the Black" (you can read it here), it plays like the product of someone who dug hard on Jesus' Son and is trying to sort out how to use voice like Faulkner. It's a litany of "well, of course that would happen" and "well, of course they would say thats" that's precocious, sure.  It's got potential, sure.  But ultimately it's a kind of messy blend of abrupt sentences and navel gazing. The story falls flat, forces its epiphany, and reads like something we've read too many times before. Adapt it into a movie? Well, the problems don't just go away.

The restructuring of the storylines is here carried out by Gia Coppola, the latest addition to the family all-star roster. Coppola is the granddaughter of Francis Ford, the niece of Sofia and Roman, and an heiress apparent to a sort of indie legacy. In adapting the Palo Alto stories, she makes a series of deft edits.  Things are smoothed out and streamlined. Characters are renamed and mixed up, made somehow easier to understand where Franco left them tough to imagine.  The Joe and Michael of "Just Before the Black" are here Teddy (Jack Kilmer) and Fred (Nat Wolff), two bed-headed teen miscreants navigating the edges of their friendship through a haze of pot smoke and sexual conquests.  Their stories are pushed only slightly behind April's (Emma Roberts) fumblings. April is, perhaps, the most aware of the characters depicted in Palo Alto, and Gia Coppola draws her out as a sort of amalgamated pastiche of her aunt's protagonists.  She's a smart, quiet girl who dumbs herself down to play the high school social game.  April smokes cigarettes at soccer practice, jumps on her bed and rehearses telling people off, listens to the sexually explicit ramblings of her friends, and stares into the distance. She's the object of uncharted affections for her coach (James Franco) -- an adult whose attentions confuse and attract her -- and also for Teddy. 
Between all of them, we meet several minor characters who speak to something like an authentic experience of adolescent turmoil. The backing cast grounds the disjointed storytelling in the foreground, and if you're in the mood for atmosphere, they make it easy to forgive the way so much of the film seems to trail off, lose itself, or seem accidentally prone to becoming a morality play.  The actors all play their parts well, and from scene to scene the potential (as it is in the stories themselves) is clear.  Somehow, though, the parts don't add up to an interesting whole. Every individual character's story seems just a kind of dreamy recollection of another, more dynamic, movie (or, often times, movies).  So, the emotional sucker punch that could be there isn't. Palo Alto feels reductive, or, at the least, not fully in control of its own motions.  There's an anxiety of influence here that suggests that Gia Coppola could be the next big thing, but is still rehearsing and exploring in the voice of another.  One thing is clear: she has inherited a keen sense of the cinematic. If nothing else, Palo Alto is rich in beautiful images. It's a long series of Tumblr threads waiting to happen, and the cinematography speaks to something in its characters that they cannot seem to give voice to.  We see what they see, how they feel, in the plays of sunlight or in the focus on a particular object. The innocence lost is conveyed in the stills, but not in the emotional timbre.  While watching, I was struck by the way I repeatedly failed to really connect with the characters.  They were distant, too pre-formed, like factory-produced versions of dysfunction missing that one little piece, that something that would give them real dimension.  

If you ask the admissions committee, perhaps they're just a little too workshopped, not quite fresh enough. The balance of the film's generalities and the character particulars is too uneven, and what Palo Alto asks you to feel is somehow more than it's capable of offering.    

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful review! Sofia's works are either hit or miss for me, and I sense the same from Palo Alto -- don't know if I could say the same about Gia, since it's the first time I've heard of her. If the story is good, though, even if disjointed, then I think it could work very well... I'm always up for seeing beautiful Tumblr images on a movie screen. Can't wait to see this, your review is absolutely intriguing!


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