**1/2 (out of four)
A parent tempted by a student. Another parent who might be in the closet. A strange teen who sometimes says and does unsettling things. Lots of weed. Is “Palo Alto” trying to remind us of “American Beauty”?
Probably not. And for what it’s worth, the writing-directing debut of Gia Coppola (niece of Sofia and Roman), adapted from stories by co-star James Franco, doesn’t suffer for those similarities. It feels closer to a project from Coppola’s aunt (“The Virgin Suicides”) or maybe Gus Van Sant (“Paranoid Park”). No, I didn’t intend that to rhyme, but sometimes one thing leads to another.
That’s one of the big ideas in “Palo Alto,” although credit Coppola for not lecturing or giving the film a sense of doom. Events happen naturally, but it’s reasonable to see how characters would lack foresight. April (Emma Roberts) likes Teddy (Jack Kilmer, son of Val, who appears as April’s stepdad), and Teddy likes April. But their friendship isn’t moving that direction, because this is high school and sometimes that’s how it goes. Teddy spends a little while with Emily (Zoe Levin of “The Way, Way Back”), who spends more time with Teddy’s pal Fred (Nat Wolff). As if ordinary high school drama weren’t enough, April has very obvious sexual tension with her soccer coach (Franco), for whom she regularly babysits.
Does “Palo Alto” have anything new to say about being young and confused, or older and potentially misguided? I’m not sure. The film becomes deliberately uncomfortable in the way the male characters continually mistreat the female characters. There’s authenticity as the teenagers feel tempted and/or trapped, and adults sometimes do more talking than listening. Yet Coppola also seems unsure how to wrangle this sunny malaise into a portrait of anything but a routine—if occasionally haunting—search for identity. “Palo Alto’s” greatest strength might be in letting us watch the good kids search for love, and implying that their time has yet to come.
The recent incident in which Franco allegedly tried to pick up a 17-year-old girl via Instagram must be mentioned here, if only because, in theory, it’s not impossible he did so as a promotional gimmick. (Note: The age of consent is 17 in New York.) But I really hope not.
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