The hazy surrealness of what it's like to be an adolescent fumbling toward adulthood is a perpetual fascination for filmmakers and audiences alike.
Movies ranging from 1955's influential "Rebel Without a Cause," starring ultracool icon James Dean, to 2012's complex "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" have explored this fertile terrain with intelligence and style.
With the haunting and impressionistic "Palo Alto," Gia Coppola stakes a worthy claim on the genre, putting a unique and very real stamp on her vignette-focused debut. Demonstrating a confident grasp for small, telling details and striking imagery, Coppola -- a one-time photography student -- adapts a few of the stories from actor-filmmaker James Franco's interconnected, fictional "Palo Alto: Stories," and gives them a relaxed sense of cohesion. While the film appears to ramble, dropping in and out like faulty cellphone reception on four main characters who act and look like real-life adolescents, don't be deceived. At its core is a strong sense of purpose as the screenwriter and director, along with her talented young cast and director of photography Autumn Durald, piercingly convey what it feels like to be a teenage "outsider" with volatile emotions.
It's a topic others in her family have mined well, including grandfather Francis Ford Coppola, who directed 1983's "The Outsiders" to her aunt Sofia Coppola's unforgettable 1999 debut, "The Virgin Suicides."
Don't be misled by the title. While Franco's book pinpointed key local spots, the movie was filmed in the Woodland Hills part of Los Angeles, and the city merely serves as a metaphor for Anywhere Suburban, USA. Coppola's focus, instead, is on the characters. And beyond its visual artistry, that's what makes "Palo Alto" stand out from the pack of ordinary teen flicks -- those characters, believable teens and adults who often don't do the right thing.
The one with the most compelling story is April (portrayed with girl-woman erraticness by Emma Roberts), who always wants to be the good girl and gets teased for it. When the charming and manipulative soccer coach Mr. B. (Franco, in another strong performance) makes his advances more sexual, the vulnerable April confronts the harsh realities of right and wrong. Coppola handles these scenes without being exploitative, yet makes them unsettling and discomforting. They stick with you -- as do many images in this film.
April's two guy friends struggle with their own demons. Teddy (portrayed with heart by Jack Kilmer, son of Val -- who has a tiny role as a stoned stepdad) tangles with the police and doesn't understand his emotions for April or for being an artist. Fred (Nat Wolff in a believable performance) is a cocky bully with control issues. He, along with many of the other guys, has sex with the promiscuous and complicated Emily (Zoe Levin adroitly handling a tough part).
Not much happens plotwise. What matters is what transpires emotionally, as boyish games turn prophetic and encounters with adults (notably Teddy's exchange with Fred's father, played by Chris Messina) reveal even more complexity. Sometimes, though, Coppola lays it on too thick. Case in point: a whole lot of cigarette smoking. There's a very good metaphor in the screenplay for it, but the countless scenes of teens lighting up comes off as overkill in a movie that works best when it's understated and void of broad strokes. There's also a frustrating open-ended final scene. Then again, that ambiguity fits with the theme of what it's like to be on the cusp of adulthood, a place where the ending's not spelled out for you.
But these are minor missteps. And while "Palo Alto" might not point the teen genre into revolutionary new directions, it does achieve a major goal: putting its talented filmmaker and cast on the cinematic map.
Rating: R (for strong sexual content, drug, and alcohol use, and pervasive language -- all involving teens)
Cast: Emma Roberts, James Franco, Jack Kilmer, Nat Wolff, Zoe Levin
Director and screenwriter: Gia Coppola
Running time: 1 hour,