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It’s Real to Me: On Gia Coppola’s Understanding of the Teenage Experience in ‘Palo Alto’

Growing up is a gradient, and Gia Coppola’s Palo Alto is most interested in the color swatches. The process of adolescence into adulthood is not an instant evolution or a seamless transition; it’s a collection of flashing moments that’s later recalled with the haze of nostalgia. In Coppola’s depiction of the teenage experience (adapted from James Franco’s book), everything is as real as it feels. She depicts love, reciprocation, pain and the scarring effects that create an adult — not graduation or getting a job, or any other fulfilled expectation. Being a teenager is hard, and Coppola remembers this creed vividly, and honestly, within the world of Palo Alto.

There’s a pulsating heartbeat of an autobiographical nature within Palo Alto. Coppola and Franco seem to not only call on their memories to create the characters, but they expect that most viewers have met them already, in one form or another. There’s Teddy (Jack Kilmer), who embodies every sort of stoner, loner or skater, and Fred, (Nat Wolff), who will do anything for attention. Then there’s April (Emma Roberts), whose genuine veneer of being a classic “girl next door” is sucked out by the immense misunderstanding of her peers.

The kids’ feet in Palo Alto don’t seem to touch the ground. They haunt house parties, cars, classrooms and their family homes, moving wistfully from place to place. There’s an aimlessness captured in Palo Alto — which is present in most films about the teenage experience — but Coppola’s direction lends an ethereal quality to this tenant of the genre. The apathy of affluence combined with a lack of direction is the milieu that Coppola plays with through the setting; everything is a place to be drifted into, out of or towards. Graveyards are smoky respites of hushed affection and extracurricular sporting events are lit with a dreamlike quality — inviting yet insular. An extended sequence where Teddy imagines himself as Max from Where the Wild Things Are lends itself to the fantastical ethos of Palo Alto.

This isn’t to say that the protagonists’ problems are superfluous. Coppola treats the dread of expectation through the lens of growing up with the same sort of magical realism quality. She’s exploring relatively new terrain; the anxiety of preparing for college, and the idea that one must understand their future looms over the entire film. Most of the adults, save for the predatory Mr. B (Franco), seek to either criticize or placate the protagonists. Their criticisms never seem to ring hollow, as Coppola lends them an omniscient voiceover that resonates throughout the film. It’s a choice one, too, performed by Coppola’s grandfather, Francis Ford, when Teddy is given his last chance to redeem himself after a drunk driving accident. It feels like a judgment from God: shape up or drown.

Much like its sibling anxiety, the haze of depression looms over the film. Fred is manic in his attempts to get any sort of feeling out of the world; he will hurt, fight and fuck his way to meaning. When that doesn’t work, he’ll pull everyone down with him in an envisioned blaze of glory. It’s almost childlike, as Fred wants to pull all of the blocks down in the playpen so that no one can enjoy them. He’s not against anyone, either — he’s just so immensely for himself that all empathy has corroded away. He speaks of a former classmate that “suicided himself” the same way one would rattle off a “how are you?” There’s never a scene where Fred admits to himself, or the world for that matter, that he’s hurting. One would only need to look at the trail of destruction behind him to figure that out.

“You look tired. You really need to rest. Are you depressed?” That’s how April’s mother greets her at home. It’s these vapid helicopter-parenting accusations masked as concern that Coppola holds the biggest criticism for. April’s mom is aware of adolescent depression, but she has no way of disconnecting herself to actually approach it in a genuine fashion. The superficiality of April’s mom juxtaposed with the kids’ ocean of feelings posits both respect and sympathy for the millennial generation’s fumbling in the dark for a light switch.

None of the kids’ clothes seem to fit right, either. If adopted through thrift stores or hand-me-downs from relatives, the apparel in Palo Alto seems to represent organic extensions of the protagonists, anxiously waiting for their owners to grow into them, to grow up with them. Coppola finds definition in environment.

Characters are their rooms, their clothes, the rips in their shoes, the leftover toys from their childhood. Fred’s pants are flooding in a grade school way that’d be cute if it wasn’t for him, April rocks a femme fatale-esque jacket one size too big and Teddy almost always wears button-downs far too big and far too worn out to be bought off the rack in this decade. His clothes are a uniform dedicated to the tumultuous turmoil of his young adulthood. And tumultuous it is: his passivity turns him into a pinball flying into whatever direction those louder and more aggressive have picked out for him.

Yet Teddy, when being pressed on the question of how he would live in the time of King Arthur, dreams of being a King. “King Teddy,” Fred says dismissively. “That’s a fucking turd’s name, dude.”

There is such earnesty in Coppola’s direction that Teddy feels noble. He loves April almost like a chivalrous knight of storybooks, without pretense or condition. Coppola, instead of attaching a sort of cynical warning to teenage romance, lets it live and blossom between lit cigarettes and awkward displays of affection. She understands how real it feels and chooses to not rob that emotion with the insight of seniority.

So much of Palo Alto could be immediately deflated by the pinprick of cynicism that chastises young love and the teenage experience. Sofia Coppola’s film serves as a refutation of every grown-up, omniscient dismissal. Instead of skipping to the binary found at the beginning and end of the color swatch, Palo Alto flushes every color in the middle, every emotion found in growing up. If it feels real, it’s real, and if it felt real, it was real.

Justin Micallef (@justinrmicallef) is a critic who loves nothing ironically. Find his work at The Outhousers, Loser City, Detroit Music Magazine and your nearest bathroom stall.

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