“Palo Alto” opens Friday at Sundance Cinemas. R, 1:38, two and a half stars out of four.
In the opening scene of “Palo Alto,” two teenage boys sit in an idling car in a parking lot, getting drunk, talking about whatever. Then the driver hits the accelerator and drives the car into a wall. Just to see what would happen.
Most of the teenage characters in “Palo Alto” don’t think much farther ahead than that. The feature debut from writer-director Gia Coppola (granddaughter of Francis Ford), and based on a collection of James Franco short stories, “Palo Alto” is good at capturing the aimless rhythms of teenagedom, from party to car to school to party. It doesn’t always make for compelling viewing, but it certainly feels accurate.
April (Emma Roberts) is the most mature character in the film, and that includes the grown-ups, who are often shown as addled, distracted or predatory. A star soccer player and good student at her school, April floats along with her friends as they talk about sex and parties and sex at parties, feeling a little isolated from the world around her.
Another boy, a nice kid named Teddy (Jack Kilmer) seems to like her, but in a culture where sex comes first and feelings later, neither is ready to admit anything to the other. It’s not “Will they or won’t they?” so much as “Will they do anything?”
So April floats, disastrously, into an affair with her single-dad soccer coach (Franco) while Teddy hangs with his self-destructive friend Fred (Nat Wolff). Coppola’s filmmaking style feels like a throwback to ’90s low-budget indie filmmaking, with slightly stiff stagings and deliberately flat line readings, authenticity prized over drama. The dreamy, synth-drenched soundtrack by Blood Orange acts as a counterpoint to the realistic visuals, as if expressing the emotions that the characters themselves can’t even access or understand.
You might have thought Roberts would be a little too old for a role like this by now, but this is her best work yet, playing April as very guarded and letting the audience find the loneliness inside her. Kilmer, whose tousled blond hair and baby face make him look like L’il Beck, is also engaging — the wordless scene where he does community service working in a children’s library, and finds himself entranced by all the books, is a stunner.
In the end, “Palo Alto” feels a little too thin to support a feature film, a series of observations rather than a story, and Coppola doesn’t always know where to distinguish between universal experience and mere cliche. But it’s an honorable start that immediately sets her on her own filmmaking path apart from her famous family.