Admittedly, Gia Coppola's (yes, of those Coppolas) first feature film treads well-worn territory: Disaffected teenagers trying to figure out where they fit in to a little thing called life, and the myriad of bad choices they make along the way. While other films have attempted this as well ("Myth of the American Sleepver," "The Spectacular Now," and even "Perks of Being a Wallflower,") this does feel like it's pretty authentic.
Utilizing five of the stories from James Franco's book "Palo Alto: Stories," the film revolves around a number of tenuously connected teenagers at a Northern California high school. April (Emma Roberts) is a good girl who plays soccer by day and babysits her teacher's kid at night. That teacher is Mr. B (James Franco), who has clearly taken a liking to April. April's step-dad Stewart (Val Kilmer) is an author who is high a lot and not much of a father figure (or role model). Neither is her shallow self-obsessed mother.
In another area of school is Teddy (Jack Kilmer - yup, his son) and his best friend Fred (Nat Wolff). Teddy, like April, is a good kid (and both virgins) who just happens to make wrong choices because of the company he keeps. Fred is that company and he is a lost soul that seems to be looking for anything to take him out of dealing with real life. And, based on the brief scene we get with his father (Chris Messina), it's clear his home life is pretty dysfunctional. (Moreover, there are a lot of guys in this town that dig underage teens.)
Lastly, there is a girl named Emily who is eager to please the boys, even though the only person that understands that she's doing it to please herself is, well, herself. On the outside she acts like a girl that doesn't care about her reputation and is fairly cavalier about sex. But when she starts getting attached to these boys with whom she fools around, we see there is a deeper longing and hurt that makes her do what she does.
This is what makes Coppola's debut stand out from the coldness of filmmakers like Gus Van Sant, and even her sister Sofia, who deal with similar subjects. Here, she presents these characters in almost a superficial way, but then slowly and subtly peels back the layers to see the motivations for it underneath. At first, watching selfish, self-obsessed and immature teenagers doing what teenagers do is a fairly depressing exercise. And some films have simply presented this for us to witness and pick apart. Here, we are shown teens as they are, but we also get to see a few of them begin to make better choices even after they've messed up. There is a hope here, at least for a few characters, and that makes this film stand apart.
While Emma Roberts has made a career out of playing the spoiled-brat teen (even at age 22) she gives a layered and vulnerable performance that shows hints of a greater career. Even more impressive is Kilmer who is a natural on screen. He feels like a real kid, but is effective at showing us what is going on inside. Wolff (previously part of the "Naked Brothers Band") is a good choice for that prick we question why we are even friends, and whose self-destruction shows no signs of ending. Zoe Levin also brings vulnerability to her role as Emily, playing it uncaring and hard at first, but when she allows us to see underneath, it's heartbreaking. Franco is always good, although his recent attempt to hook up with a seventeen year-old girl online hits a bit too close to his character here. Although, that could have all been a publicity stunt to bring more people to the film. Who knows?
But what we do know is that while this film might not appeal to everyone, it is a realistic portrayal of teenage indifference. The good news is that there are a few characters worth your investing time, because they actually recognize the indifference and make strides to move away from it. While we might sometimes look at the youth of today with disdain, this is a good reminder that not every person under the age of eighteen is hopeless at making a difference in themselves.