Gia Coppola, Palo Alto, 2013, HD video, color, sound, 100 minutes. April and Teddy (Emma Roberts and Jack Kilmer).


A STRAWBERRY SHAKE splattering on the ground, brightly colored fridge magnets spelling out COCK 4 DAYZ, a babysitter and her charge donning cat and tiger masks: Many images in Gia Coppola’s Palo Alto seize the viewer’s attention even if characters, ideas, and point of view prove elusive.

This first film by a member of the third generation of the Coppola dynasty (Gia is Francis’s granddaughter) begs comparison with the debut feature of the most prominent director from the second. At twenty-seven, Gia is a year younger than her aunt Sofia was when The Virgin Suicides was released in 2000. Like the earlier film, a page-to-screen transfer of Jeffrey Eugenides’s 1993 novel, Palo Alto both centers on adolescents and is sourced from a debut work of fiction: the eponymous 2010 collection of short stories by James Franco, who has a small but pivotal role as a high-school-girls’ soccer coach. Significantly, both Coppolas also wrote the screenplays for their inaugural films. Yet The Virgin Suicides, set in 1974 and imbued with melancholy, suggests a caress; Palo Alto, adrift in twenty-first-century Bay Area whatever-ness, gives off no more than a shrug.

In Palo Alto, the younger Coppola, who got her start as a fashion photographer and director of fashion shorts, also explores the recurring theme of her aunt’s work: the listlessness of the privileged. Three central characters emerge from the pot haze—clouds created not only by the kids but their ineffectual, equally solipsistic guardians—that wafts throughout the film: April (Emma Roberts), Teddy (Jack Kilmer), and Fred (Nat Wolff), high schoolers who in an early party scene resemble the central trio in Rebel Without a Cause; this triangle quickly splinters off, only to be unconvincingly reconfigured by film’s end. Of this troika, Teddy, similar to the eager, curious actor who plays him, is the most compelling. (Kilmer, making his screen debut, is, like his two costars, the child of a well-known performer.) Cardigan-clad Teddy is the sole character shown negotiating the outside world, interactions necessitated by the community-service jobs at a public library and a senior citizens’ home he must fulfill after a DUI.

As for Teddy’s classmates, they largely remain ciphers or one-dimensional. Fred is a charmless sociopath; Teddy’s query to his friend “Why do you have to try so fucking hard to seem crazy?” is equally applicable to Wolff’s acting style. April must untangle herself from the illicit relationship instigated by Franco’s soccer coach (as in last year’s Spring Breakers, the actor is extremely convincing as an ephebophile), but, other than a crying spell in the bathroom, evinces little emotion about anything. “I care about everything too much,” she tells Teddy in the film’s final fifteen minutes, despite all evidence to the contrary.

One misty night in northern California (played by SoCal’s San Fernando Valley) bleeds into another in Palo Alto, our grasp on these characters just as tenuous in the end as it was in the beginning. Are kids in the wealthier ZIP codes really this dull and opaque? Much lower on the socioeconomic scale are the teen protagonists of Terri and Pariah, both from 2011, and those of It Felt Like Love, released in March, and the upcoming Boyhood—all films that honor their subjects by paying close attention to them.

Melissa Anderson

Palo Alto opens in limited release on May 9.