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Originally published Thursday, June 12, 2014 at 3:07 PM

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‘Palo Alto’ looks like teen spirit

A two-and-a-half-star review of “Palo Alto,” a messy but haunting portrait of teenage ennui.


Seattle Times movie critic

Movie Review ★★½  

‘Palo Alto,’ with Emma Roberts, James Franco, Jack Kilmer, Nat Wolff, Zoe Levin. Written and directed by Gia Coppola, based on short stories by Franco. 99 minutes. Rated R for strong sexual content, drug and alcohol use and pervasive language — all involving teens. Harvard Exit.

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Yet another tale of teen ennui, in which all the young characters are troubled and all the adults are either predatory or ineffectual, Gia Coppola’s uneven drama “Palo Alto” nonetheless has occasional moments that register. It’s based on a collection of short stories by the actor James Franco (well-cast here as a smirking girls soccer coach), about a group of well-off California teenagers: good-girl April (Emma Roberts), bad-girl Emily (Zoe Levin), angel-faced artist Teddy (Jack Kilmer), his bad-boy sidekick Fred (Nat Wolff, wonderfully capturing a slightly ominous, wiry energy). They do R-rated teenage things and stare dispassionately into space; they don’t quite know yet who they are, and neither do we, even by the film’s end.

You sense that Coppola, in her directing debut, is reaching for the kind of shimmering, dreamy-teen angst found by her aunt Sofia in “The Virgin Suicides” — one shot in particular, of a trio of girls lounging by a pool surrounded by the detritus of the previous night’s party, has an indolent beauty. But the film maintains an awkward balance between pretty (all of these teens look like models) and gritty; these lost boys and girls are playing dangerous but familiar games.

Kilmer (son of Val Kilmer, who has a small role here, and Joanne Whalley), in his screen debut, has a soft, easy magnetism, and the film’s final shot is lovely enough to make you forget much of what came before. Ultimately, “Palo Alto” is a messy yet haunting portrait of a particular time in life. “I do things all the time for no reason,” says April. “Because you’re young,” is the reply.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com



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