Palo Alto

“Disillusioned youths groping for self-worth in the teenage wastelands of California.” This could be the long-form title of newcomer Gia Coppola’s film, adapted from a collection of short stories by James Franco. In a prescient moment of lucidity Franco had earlier said that he only wanted a woman to direct the adaptation of his novel. In this directorial debut Coppola transformed the violent environments of the Franco novel into storytelling that’s tender and generous.

Teddy (Jack Kilmer, son of Val) is a quiet teenager with a tendency to daydream. His best friend Fred (Nat Wolff) attempts to lure him into mischief.

April (Emma Roberts) is attracted to Teddy but begins a dangerous liaison with her (inappropriately older) soccer coach, played by James Franco, a libidinous single dad. The teenage shenanigans that ensue turn into something of a drama as people start using and abusing each other.

SEE James Franco doing a close reading of a poem

And when the kids of “Palo Alto” use each other, they’re the worse for it, obviously. It becomes difficult to watch as these young men and women at the peak of their lives move in the adult world with so much uncertainty But it also makes for good narrative.

As April–a shy and awkward but attractive young woman and good-girl incarnate (she’s a virgin) although she doesn’t come off that way–Emma Roberts gives her best performance to date.

Coppola doesn’t break any new grounds with “Palo Alto” but her generosity towards her characters and the fact that she doesn’t push anything onto them, preferring to let the travails of adolescence play out on screen, make this new film a touching one and make her a vital new presence.

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“Palo Alto,” a Tribeca Film release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for “strong sexual content, drug and alcohol use, and pervasive language, all involving teens.” Running time: 98 minutes.

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