It's difficult to imagine what kind of pressure having the last name Coppola brings to a young girl interested in becoming a filmmaker. With an aunt who has continually churned out interesting (if divisive) hits, a well-respected filmmaker uncle, and one of the most famous directors of all time as a grandpa, Gia Coppola could be excused for any desire to forgo filmmaking for something with lower expectations -- say neurosurgery. But apparently the draw of the family business was just too strong to say no. While those with dynastic expectations of pretentiousness in Gia's debut feature Palo Alto probably won't be disappointed, the results of her labors are actually rather enjoyable -- and point to more promising things from the latest Coppola in our midst.
Gia's origin story is more impressive than just her Hollywood lineage. Her father Gian-Carlo (Francis's eldest) was killed in a freak speedboating accident while her mother Jacqui de la Fontaine was pregnant with her. Jacqui, herself a successful Hollywood stylist, went on to marry Getty heir Peter Getty. In 2010, Jacqui and Peter had a messy divorce that filled the tabloids with scandalous stories of drugs and adultery. While this crazy upbringing has surely informed her storytelling prowess, it isn't her own tale that Gia decided to tell for her maiden filmmaking voyage. Instead she has turned to the increasingly multi-hyphenate actor-writer-director James Franco for source material.
Based on Franco's collection of short stories titled Palo Alto Stories, Gia's film blends the anthological nature of the book into a relatively melded story of interconnected teens in the Any-Suburb, USA of Palo Alto, CA. Our main cast of characters includes the damaged girl with slutty tendencies (Zoe Levin as Emily), the artistic boy who seems too mature for the gang (Jack Kilmer as Teddy), the nihilistic friend who will be lucky to see 21 (Nat Wolff as Fred), and the slightly rebellious good girl with a crush on the much older soccer coach (Emma Roberts as April). Franco himself shows up in one of his creepier roles (and that's saying a lot) as April's soccer coach who is just as interested in taking their relationship to inappropriate levels as she.
While the performances by the supporting characters vary from fine to rather poor, the main ensemble players all do extremely well. In particular, young Jack Kilmer is an exceptional talent whose flock of hair covering his face is reminiscent of his namesake while his brooding persona points to even better things to come (his father Val has a small but hilarious role as well). The multi-generational connections continue with Roberts who has already proven that her abilities rival her father Eric's, though he is perhaps disappointingly not a member of this particular cast.
While angst has long been a topic of any story dealing with teenagers, it's somewhat difficult to pin down exactly when these kids are best suited to be living. While the technology betrays an obvious contemporary setting, the characters aren't necessarily dealing with issues unique to teens of this decade. In today's fast moving world of memes and lightning quick zeitgeist, Auntie Sophia's recent The Bling Ring stands as a better documentation of how kids in the 21st century look at (and perhaps look to) society. Quite possibly because of her tender age, Gia is able to tap into a certain authenticity of youth -- it just feels like a slightly less contemporary version of the same shit we and every other generation went through as well.
The idea that any viewer can be completely objective is a complete fallacy and names like Coppola and Franco are bound to set off expectation warnings. Detractors of she or he won't have to try too hard to find a number of self-important moments and conspicuously affected storytelling. But those who look past a few understandable first feature transgressions will also find a rather enjoyable film. If we can't have hope for the new generation, what can we hope for?