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The Palo Alto Creamery Downtown (aka The Creamery) in Palo Alto, Calif., on Wednesday, May 14, 2014. (LiPo Ching/Bay Area News Group)

PALO ALTO -- Everybody thinks they know Palo Alto.

As much as any city in the Bay Area, this one evokes an immediate reaction -- sometimes emotional, occasionally hostile and frequently from people whose firsthand knowledge of the place extends no farther than the daily traffic jam on University Avenue.

It is the early-adopting, Tesla-driving, high-thread count cradle of the tech universe, where billionaires roam free and every home would sell for millions of dollars -- if anybody ever left. Which they don't.

It is also "Shallow Alto," a state of mind not found on any map. It's a place inhabited by many pot-smoking party kids with too much disposable income and free time, which they use in pursuit of random sexual encounters with each other and members of the high school faculty.

At least that's how it goes in the movie "Palo Alto," which opens throughout the Bay Area on Friday and is sure to rile at least some locals in the real Palo Alto.

Much like the city itself, the picture is as much myth and metaphor as it is hard truth.

"There's the Palo Alto that everybody would like Palo Alto to be -- especially the parents," says Betsy Franco, mother of actor James Franco, who grew up in town, attended Paly and co-stars in the film. "Then there's the reality."

The film, an affectionate rendering of teen angst from writer-director Gia Coppola, represents a collision of perception and reality. It never identifies Palo Alto as its backdrop and the movie was actually shot in Southern California. Its only true local connection is the book upon which it's loosely based, "Palo Alto: Stories," by James Franco.


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But there are undeniably moments in the movie when truth and fiction overlap. The main character's name is Teddy, which is what the Franco family called James when he was growing up. And in high school, when Franco was turning his life around from a bout of underage drinking, shoplifting and other forms of what his mother refers to as "mischief" and "risk taking" -- which nearly earned him a stretch in juvenile hall -- he took up figure drawing, just as some of the boys in the film do.

He also took up acting at Palo Alto Children's Theatre, which later produced an adaptation of his mother's novel, "Metamorphosis: Junior Year." The play ran at a time "when kids at the high schools were throwing themselves in front of trains," Betsy Franco says. "It became pretty apparent that there was an underbelly that nobody could ignore anymore."

In the film, Franco plays the girls soccer coach at a high school where the girls themselves size him up as a suitable sexual match and he seems to be doing the same with them.

The scenes in which Franco's character attempts to seduce a teenage girl bears an uncomfortable resemblance to an embarrassing recent episode when he attempted to arrange a hookup with a 17-year-old girl via Instagram.

That subplot may also provide a squirm-inducing reminder of Palo Alto High School principal Phil Winston's resignation last year after being investigated for making inappropriate sexual remarks to students and staff as many as 10 times.

At Paly, students participate in a mass migration across Embarcadero Road at lunchtime to the tony Town & Country Village, disdaining traditional cafeteria food for grazing choices as diverse as Kirk's Steakburgers and Calafia, run by former Google chef Charlie Ayers.

Emma Sherbatz, a 9th grader who was huddled with a half-dozen classmates outside Trader Joe's, appeared dismayed when she was informed of the movie's storyline -- particularly the fact that all the principal characters are white.

In 2010, whites became a minority in the Palo Alto Unified School District, where students speak 46 languages.

"There's definitely a lot of money in the area, but there are different types of people," Emma said. "There are obviously the people who party and the potheads."

"It's like we're kids from this rich neighborhood who are supposed to live up to certain expectations because Stanford's across the street," chimed in her friend Sarah, who, along with the other girls, preferred not to give her last name. "I mean, everyone does do A.P. (advanced placement) classes, but I don't think anyone is crazy enough to do all A.P.s. We do have other lives."

Another 9th grader named Jamie added, "That drive to do well and go to Ivy League schools is way more in us because of our parents."

It's as family-oriented as any Utah town.

"If you're not married with 2.5 children," says Michele Mandell, a hospitality industry consultant who coined the term "Shallow Alto" after 20 years there, "it's not really the place for you."

Palo Alto has overwhelming parental involvement in its schools and because the parents are often disproportionately successful, they have a tendency to be what school board trustee Barb Mitchell describes as "action-oriented people, who know how to get things done and feel entitled to get those things done."

Recently, that resulted in a donnybrook over parking at the private girls school, Castilleja. Before that, a furor erupted over some trees that were mistakenly cut down.

"When people from other places look at the things we're outraged at in Palo Alto," Mitchell says, "you can see why they get offended, make fun or are angry because their world is very different."

Contact Bruce Newman at 408-920-5004. Follow him at twitter.com/BruceNewmanTwit

who lives here?
Population: 64,403
Immigrants: 33 percent
Workforce: 50 percent foreign-born
Over age 65: 17 percent
Source: Our Palo Alto and U.S. Census figures