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Gia Coppola's "Palo Alto"

Blow Jobs, Booze and Teen Angst in Anywhere, USA

by KIM NICOLINI

Apparently even if you are the granddaughter of Frances Ford Coppola, you still are able to understand what it’s like to be an aimless and alienated teenager as Gia Coppola’s directorial debut Palo Alto aptly demonstrates. Based on a collection of short stories by James Franco (who produced and co-stars in the film), Coppola’s Palo Alto is one of the most tense movies ever made about being a teenager. It is like a pressure cooker wrapped in gauze. Beautifully filmed and fraught with the tensions of confused sexuality, adult predators, and an overwhelming sense of nowhereness, the film is beautiful yet emotionally draining. It is timeless yet of this time. It is dreamy yet so real it made me feel like throwing up after watching it.

The movie centers on three central characters  — April (Emma Roberts), Teddy (Jack Kilmer), and Fred (Nat Wolff). It  also features sideline characters such as the class “slut” Emily (Zoe Levin), a predatory soccer coach (James Franco), and an array of disaffected parents (including a pot smoking and very fat Val Kilmer)  who are like shadows of people who care. The movie meanders through a dreamlike cadence of teen alienation and emptiness. It moves from soccer fields to parking lots, from bedrooms to living rooms, from parties to skate parks, all resonating with that place fraught with the anxiety of being caught between childhood and the adult world. These are kids who meander without purpose or meaning. They are fleeting and without direction. They live only in the moment, whether they are giving a blow job, getting a blow job, gulping down Cheez Whiz, eating a sandwich, guzzling booze, or losing their virginity to a sleaze ball coach while wearing Thursday underpants on the wrong day of the week.

The fact that April always wears underpants with the wrong day of the week points to the general aimlessness of these teens. These are kids on the brink of nowhere. Days don’t matter. Weeks don’t matter. Life doesn’t matter. They aren’t children, yet they resist being adults. They are in limbo and  occupy the hole that is the teen years of life. They try to fill that hole which comes with the loss of childhood and the bleak prospects of becoming an adult with anything they can – cigarettes, booze, drugs, sex, violence.

The movie opens with a dreamy close-up of April smoking a cigarette against a background of a chain link fence, a simple poetic metaphor for being locked inside herself and her life. She then jogs down a grassy slope at twilight and joins a sea of young teen girl legs on a soccer field, and image of tangled ambling sexuality. The girls’ legs are like flesh trees as the team coach Mr. B (Franco) choreographs the girls’ movements while lusting after them. The girls project their confused sexuality onto this male authority figure in a scene of awkward sexual coming of age and confusion. All of this is filmed as if we are in a dream.

The movie then cuts to a scene of an empty parking lot with one lone streetlamp making the vacuous space glow. Fred and Teddy sit in a car on the peripheral of the lot. The front of their car abuts a wall.  They are also boxed in by the limitations of their lives and the boundary between being a kid and being an adult. In this scene and in a later scene, Fred asks Teddy what he would do if he lived in “olden times.” The truth of the matter is that they probably would do the same shit they are doing now. Nothing.

When James Dean burst onto the screen in 1955 and yelled at his parents with his infamous line “You’re tearing me apart,”  Rebel Without a Cause was coined as the movie that put juvenile delinquency on the map. However, director Nicholas Ray stated that Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet actually was the first story about juvenile delinquency. It must be noted, that Romeo and Juliet as well as the kids in Ray’s film and in Palo Alto aren’t just any juveniles. They are white children of privilege — upper middle class and upper class kids who have the time and resources to luxuriate in nowhereness and their own sense of self-tragedy. Shakespeare set the stage, Ray put it to film, but there has also been a longstanding cinematic record of privileged white kids struggling with the nowhere place between childhood and adulthood. Both director Gregg Araki and the late writer John Hughes made an art of creating stories about aimless privileged teens with nowhere to go and nothing to do but get wasted and waste time. Even Gia Coppala’s aunt Sophia has an entry in this genre with her film The Virgin Suicides (1999) which was an inspiration for Palo Alto.

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Still, labeling these kids as delinquents criminalizes something that by the cinematic and literary record seems to just be a universal truth: being a teenager and growing up sucks. It’s painful. Teens are confronted with the emptiness of the adult world, and they retaliate (rebel) against it in all kinds of confusing ways. In the opening scene of Palo Alto, shortly after Fred asks Teddy what he would do in “olden times,” Fred punches the accelerator and smashes his car into a cement wall. Teddy looks stunned, but he still vacantly smiles. Fred lets out whoops of exhilaration. This action is an exercise in futile nihilism and rebellion, a big fuck you to being a teen, to rules, and to the adult world. It is an attempt to bring life via flirting with death to the increasingly deadening prospects of becoming an adult.

The film then meanders between these three characters (mirroring the trio of Jim, Plato and Judy in Ray’s Rebel) and the people who come in and out of their life. It moves from parties to school to houses where everything seems fraught with desire and meaninglessness. At one party Teddy gets so drunk he pukes and then has local slut Emily give him a blow job.  Fred smashes bullets with a hammer, and April makes out with a random stranger. The film moves with a dreamy plotlessness that reflects the nihilism of being a teenager who rebel against plots.

These kids don’t want their lives plotted. When Coach B tries to help April with her homework, really he just wants to fuck her. The plot isn’t what it seems. Fred choreographs the gang rape of Emily only to disintegrate into a homosexual anxiety attack later in the film.  In one scene, Teddy and Fred lean against the wall of a vacant liquor store smoking and doing the nothing they always do. Fred drops a pink milkshake on the parking lot asphalt. The Styrofoam cup is smashed, and the pink ooze splatters in a long still shot of pink on black. This milkshake is yet another poetic metaphor for these kids. The comfortable enclosure of their childhood has been cracked, and they are just a pink mess splattering through life getting high on anything they can, having careless sex, smashing  cars into walls, driving into oncoming traffic, wrecklessly cutting down trees that are hundreds of years old,  and carving names into park benches.

Yet as empty as they seem, there are glimmers of desire in these characters. They want something. They just don’t know what they want. Their desperate desire for connection often turns out awkward and ugly. Emily will give anyone a blow job for a sense of connection. April let’s her coach take her virginity. Fred’s dad makes predatory sexual passes at Teddy while they share a joint. The only thing that connects these teens with each other and the adults are cigarettes, booze, marijuana, random sex, and a few often unread text messages that float through the invisible electronic communication web and ground the film in the present. James Dean’s Jim wasn’t sending text messages to Natalie Wood’s Judy.

The confused sexuality in the film and the reference to Rebel Without A Cause become clear in a scene toward the end of the film when Fred suddenly appears wearing an awkwardly fitting red jacket, a symbolic nod to Dean’s infamous red jacket. It is no accident that Fred’s jacket appears after Emily smashes him in the head with a bottle, stands up for herself, and refuses to let Fred sexually use her. It becomes clear that Emily was just a mask that Fred wore to hide his own confused sexuality. He picks up the red jacket and puts it on. The jacket is awkward. It doesn’t fit right. It is too small. Fred tugs at it as he stumbles bleeding through the following scenes.

Fred may be referencing James Dean, but Fred is even more aimless than Dean’s Jim Stark. When Fred and Teddy stop to buy pot from a dealer, Fred has what I refer to as a “blowjob breakdown.” He basically confesses that he’d rather give boys blowjobs than fuck girls. In other words, Fred outs himself. Then he falls to the ground on his knees crying, clutching the red jacket around him. He doesn’t fit in James Dean’s coat. James Dean knew what he was. Fred doesn’t have a clue. Before his awkward confession, Fred berates gay guys for hanging out together, and Teddy says to him, “They’re just doing the same thing we’re doing.” Perhaps this is what really provokes Fred’s breakdown.  Whether really gay or really straight, there is no “really” when being a teen. Everything is a confusing blur of nothingness.

The film skirts the edge of tragic violence, but the violence never pans out literally which is part of the reason the movie works so effectively. Violence, like the teens, remains in the margins. Fred is volatile. He carries a knife in his red jacket. He wields a chainsaw at a tree and at Teddy. He certainly could be straight out of Columbine. In the final scene with Fred, we are left with the image of him clutching the steering wheel dodging the lights of oncoming cars as he yells, “I’m not Bob!” This underscores his ultimate identity crisis, and is a phrase he learned in a hilarious scene with his art teacher. It also references yet another cinematic entry into the Upper Middle Class Teen Angst Genre – David Lynch’s Twin Peaks series and movie in which Bob is the alter ego of the adult predatory world.

This film may be another entry into a long list of films about teen angst, but the gorgeous cinematography and dreamy soundtrack scored by Blood Orange’s Devonté Hynes set it apart from other films and ground it in the present while moving us into the universal. Many of the most beautiful shots are of peripheral details. Often shot at twilight, signifying the twilight of childhood, the fringe details deliver images of tender alienation. A row of Italian cypress trees poke at the twilight sky. Tree limbs stretch over the rooftops of upper class homes. Parking lots and playgrounds echo with silence. Doors open and close. Streetlamps and the gutted signed of evacuated stores buzz with emptiness. These images capture the state of limbo of these kids. They are beautiful and tender, yet melancholy and full of loss. They underscore the aimless angst of the films’ teen characters.

Though the film is named after a town in Northern California, there is little evidence to ground it there. This could be Anywhere, USA. The ambiguity and minimalism of these images harkens to two gorgeously meditative and minimal films about teen angst directed by Gus Van Sant – Elephant (2003) and Paranoid Park (2007).

One of the things that makes Palo Alto so tense and effective is the evidence that on many levels these kids are still kids, yet the adults who are supposed to care for them also often act like lost kids. Emily’s pink bedroom is filled with stuffed animals and porcelain figures, even while she offers sex to any boy who wants it. Teddy spends time reading his favorite books from childhood at the children’s library and dreaming of being a boy bouncing in a bunny suit. When Teddy and Fred cut down the tree in the public park, it is upsetting not just because they are cutting down an old tree, but because it is also an image of them amputating their childhood.

The adults also don’t want to grow up. They pretend, but really they are just as lost as the kids. Franco’s Mr. B sexually preys on the girls on his soccer team because they are the only thing that is really “good” in his depressing adult world. April’s mother (played by Coppola’s real mother) pretends to care, but her words are empty. She is more interested in cultivating her tan and catching her yoga classes. April’s stepdad (an obese multi-chinned Val Kilmer) vacuously smiles out of a haze of pot smoke while he emptily utters words of love and support. Fred’s dad offers Teddy weed but then tries to seduce him. These adults are predatory and vacant, lost and without boundaries. In other words, they are not much different than the teen children for whom they are supposed to be responsible.

The movie is both beautiful and difficult. On the one hand, as a mother of a teen girl, I left the theater physically shaking and asking myself, “Are all teenagers this fucked up and this hopeless?” On the other, I was relieved by the humorous edge to some scenes in the movie which mostly involved Val Kilmer and Cheez Whiz. The humorous hallucinatory edge evokes both Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused (1993) and Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers (2012). These films along with Palo Alto make us want to scream, laugh, and cry all at the same time. I guess that is what it feels like being a teenager. But Palo Alto also strikes a nerve for the parents of these teens. Because it specifically locates the film within the domestic spaces and the schools (places which are supposed to be “safe” but rarely are), it is a film that touches the adult parents of teens as much as teens themselves.

Palo Alto pays tribute to a whole line of movies about the Blank Generation, Generation X, and Teen Angst, but it is also very much its own contemporary film. It ends with the three main characters alone and separated from each other. April lies on her bed staring at her cell phone. Fred is on the freeway driving into oncoming traffic. Finally, Teddy walks alone through a misty dark night under the freeway overpass. These kids may be connected on some surface levels, but they are also completely alone. Ending the film with the silhouette of Teddy walking alone is a beautiful evocative image. It leaves us feeling like we have just experienced an elegy and a movie. In between the blow jobs and the booze, the molestations and breakdowns, really this is a film that shows how alone we really are not only when we are teens, but when we hit that wall of the adult world. Beautiful, tender, tragic, and real, Gia Coppola’s Palo Alto is a fine first entry into cinema.

Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently published her first book, Mapping the Inside Out, in conjunction with a solo gallery show by the same name. She can be reached at knicolini@gmail.com.