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Film Review: Palo Alto

Palo Alto

Directed by Gia Coppola

Showing now at the Charles

When James Franco got busted

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in April for Instagram-flirting with an underage fan, it seemed precursory promotion for this month's release of the film

Palo Alto.

Directed by Gia Coppola, Sophia Coppola's niece, it's based on

Palo Alto Stories

, Franco's 2011 book of short stories about West Coast teenagers courting trouble.

Franco's not just an actor but a student/teacher, producer, writer, and artist personality living out in the open, seemingly among us with his Internet presence. Perhaps his unfiltered nature informs his understanding of the boundary-less teenage mind and body: Without overplaying the idea that kids have a lot to deal with, the stories in

Palo Alto

build a case that with these kids, it's made fucking worse by the adults who satellite them. Oh, and it includes an inappropriate relationship between an older man and a teen.

The film opens with the stonerest of teenage stoner scenes: Teddy (Jack "son-of-Val" Kilmer) and Fred (Nat Wolf) sit in a car in a dark and empty parking lot, smoking weed and drinking brown liquor straight from a bottle. They discuss "who would you rather be in olden times?" (answer: "the king," even though a good point is made that not everyone can be king), and drive straight into the concrete wall in front of them-bam! Let's get this dysfunctional high school drama started.

While Teddy's not really a bad kid-artistically inclined and crushing on the shy, dark-haired, dark-under-eye-circled April (Emma Roberts)-Fred is pure kinetic energy with too much on his mind and not enough focus-a hormonal whirling dervish. But they are friends for the good-usually drunk and high-times, though not really for the bad times, which don't catch them off guard as much as barely resonate.

April's a quiet kid-kinda a loner but cool with the "cool" kids, plays on a girls' soccer team coached by the predatory Mr. B (James Franco), and generally doesn't say much but feels hard and mostly moody. She dances alone in her room practicing flirty moves and brush-offs; other kids call her a virgin like it's an insult.

Her mom (played by Coppola's mother, Jacqui Getty) is always on the phone but gives her plenty of empty verbal reinforcement, and her stepdad is a stoner/writer in a bathrobe-sort of "the Dude" from

The Big Lebowski

if the Dude was a freelancer-played by Val Kilmer. She babysits for the divorced Mr. B, who does his pedophile grooming of her very well: touching her casually at first, offering rides and help with homework, patiently explaining how she is different from the women he somehow finds himself dating so that he needs a baby-sitter.

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April's not the only teen surrounded by adults with no boundaries and that shit is rubbing off. Fred's creepy dad, Mitch, is played in a 10-minute, slyly horrifying cameo by Chris Messina-and remember, Mr. B coaches a

whole team

of teenage girls.

At a party, Emily (Zoe Levin) gets around-you know, the school slut-and you just wonder why, what hurts so bad inside, and God, these kids force drinks on each other like it's their job, so everyone is scary drunk and she's so very vulnerable. Fred eventually gets with Emily and it just feels so precarious for them, both physically and emotionally. April and Teddy circle around each other but without the words to have much of a sincere or lengthy conversation, and the whole time, a weird, ashy glow casts shadows on people too self-absorbed to absorb the light. They all seem so incredibly tired.

Things do happen: Drunk and emotional Teddy gets involved with a hit and run; April cheats on her homework; Fred gets injured physically, but it's his mental stability that's most worrisome. Some characters crack while the background stays the same. Everything feels like it did in high school: Stupid shit matters way too much and people don't make the really important decisions as much as indecision makes them.

The filming is tense-cameras sometimes film from far away and then get close on the smallest of actions. At times the audience is up in the party, maybe sitting on the couch with the teenagers letting loose, and then we are across the street or in the stadium at a soccer match-but it all feels organic and real, with an aesthetic reminiscent of photos from the '70s. So many moments hang on the precipice of danger, and Coppola (who also wrote the screenplay), with a style like her aunt Sophia, makes them beautiful.

While baby-sitting, April finally gets Mr. B's little boy to turn off the video games and watch a movie, and it's

Fast Times at Ridgemont High

, another dark high school film with as many honest scenarios: cringe-worthy and humorous moments of youth who seem to carry a mortgage-size weight on their shoulders. Kids-they're just like us.

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