Saturday, December 06, 2014

Penny Thoughts ‘14—Palo Alto (2014) **

R, 100 min.
Director: Gia Coppola
Writers: Gia Coppola, James Franco (short stories)
Starring: Jack Kilmer, Emma Roberts, Nat Wolff, James Franco, Zoe Levin, Olivia Crocicchia, Claudia Levy, Val Kilmer

This is one of those rare occasions where I’ve actually read the book upon which the movie is based. I read James Franco’s collection of short stories, “Palo Alto: Stories”, and I didn’t particularly like it. He has a natural hand for writing, but it seemed he was trying too hard to be indifferent about his characters’ lives. He writes about harsh lives of adolescence and bad choices, but he seemed too willing to leave his characters hanging without any judgment or catharsis.

My problems with Gia Coppola’s cinematic adaptation of Franco’s somewhat life-inspired tales set in his real life hometown, is that it isn’t harsh enough. Compared to the book, these kids are pretty tame. They don’t seem to live quite as close to the edge as Franco’s versions of them.

The schoolteacher flirting with an affair with one of his students isn’t quite as creepy here. That girl isn’t nearly as victimized, by him or many other things that happen to her in the book but not here. The kid who gets probation for a hit and run accident never really seems to be heading down a bad path or seems to be an alcoholic. Even the crash doesn’t seem to occur out of circumstance, but more out of a necessity to the plot. His bad penny friend is still a pretty bad penny, but again he never dives into quite the depths of depravity here as he does in the book.

I also believe ethnicity changes were made from the book to the film in fears of appearing racist. While I don’t believe it is the book’s intention to be racist in its depiction of Asian-Americans, seeing that depiction on screen would certainly draw more attention to their victimization in the stories. Instead the movie removes all ethnicities from Franco’s Palo Alto location, which I would imagine is fairly diverse from how he depicts it in the book. I’m not sure which is the wrong move here. By having a predominantly white cast from a source material that was ethnically diverse, the filmmakers continue the Hollywood tradition of denying major roles to non-white actors.

On the other hand, despite her lack of teeth, Gia Coppola’s direction proves once again that the Coppola cinematic dynasty is filled with talent. She creates some beautiful images of the damaged youth of the nineties here. Her feel for transitions and editing is superb. And she creates the perfect atmosphere for her subject matter. She takes Franco’s scattered collection of separate stories and forms them into a comprehensible plot the flows from point A to point Z with remarkable fluidity. Her cast is just as impressive with some wonderful performances by unknowns, like Nat Wolff, Zoe Levin and Jack Kilmer, to marquee actors, like Franco and Emma Roberts. It isn’t a bad movie; it just doesn’t work as well as it should.

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