Set among the broad lawns and narrow lives of the titular California neighborhood, Palo Alto finds poetry in teen life, though it often exhibits an adolescent mindset itself, fixated as it is on familiar notions of social self-imprisonment. What results is the same generalized view of suburbia that’s been depicted regularly since the mid ’60s, as a place with a toxic dedication to keeping up appearances, beneath which fractured people live out incomplete existences, all of them quietly desperate for something more. There’s not much novelty in this conception, nor in the film’s rote set of characters—the burnouts and virgins and various other half-formed personalities—compiled piecemeal from previous suburban sagas.
Joining the family business, 26-year-old Gia Coppola at least does an admirable job of presenting this world, which feels completely conceived, tracking a glimmering procession of misspent summer days capped off with dissolute nighttime parties, the often-tense negotiations between wayward youth, their semi-present parents, and other predatory authority figures. But basic competence, exhibited within a sort of pleasant, dreamlike tone, are all she manages. Merging three distinct character studies into one patchwork narrative structure, the film seems intent on providing shading to old types, from the precociously world-weary deep-thinker April (Emma Roberts), to the frustrated stoner Teddy (Jack Kilmer), to the wiseass screw-up Fred (Nat Wolff), and other corollary, equally recognizable, characters, but the film falls short of a nuanced imagining of the internal politics of suburbia.
Like many memoir-style remembrances, Palo Alto is set in a vague shadow world that’s half present, half past, as Coppola drops the early-’90s setting of James Franco’s short-story collection for a world where ever-present angst is channeled through Smartphones and iPads. The shallow-focus cinematography expands this vagueness into a sort of oppressive reverie, adolescent dreamers floating along in an ethereal haze, phantoms in search of permanent personalities, but there’s little of substance here beyond the wistful atmospherics. At the core of the vignette-style approach sits another familiar conceit, the various doomed romantic entanglements of two characters we know belong together, with the film mostly marking time until they realize this as well.
Working off the shaky foundation of Franco’s stories, Palo Alto presents little that wasn’t already done better in Myth of the American Sleepover, an equally evocative tale of longing that was far more successful at matching teen tropes with atmospheric naturalism. The film feels most callow in its portrayal of adults, all imagined as confused, overgrown children, who range from well-intentioned but incompetent—Val Kilmer appeals in a baffling turn as a flamboyant stepparent—to directly menacing. There are two separate scenarios involving sexual advances from adults, with Franco himself showing up to fill the tried-and-true role of the soccer coach seeking out conquests among his female players.
Yet while the mishandling of supposedly mature characters identifies deeper structural issues, the lead actors more than hold their own, thanks to Coppola’s steady hand with young performers. Roberts and Kilmer do strong work as leads, and the film is nearly stolen by Wolff, playing a nihilistic troublemaker who represents the only element of real danger here. The three stand out as the film’s only real coup, presenting teen figures who feel like actual teenagers, their behavior random and idiotic, not completely guided by the vagaries of plot and character construction. But this itself isn’t enough, and allowing realistic characters to flounder in hackneyed dramatic situations only makes them feel wasted. As a portrait of modern angst, the film isn’t as incisive as Gia’s aunt Sofia’s equally chilly The Bling Ring, which positioned its young principals as hollow cogs within a reflective system of copycat narcissism. Palo Alto smoothly depicts a similarly vacant world, but does little to fill it with much of interest, coasting along on melancholic ambiance.