Remarkable as it seems, there’s still poetry to be found in the idea of kids tooling around with nothing much to do. Whether you grew up in a small town or a midsize-to-large city, in 1962, 1982, or 2002, you probably remember getting into a car, unwisely, with the first pal in your crowd to get a license, using a doctored ID to buy beer, and perhaps even committing the gravest sin against clean, healthy living: smoking.
Not all of those things happen in Gia Coppola’s directorial debut, Palo Alto, in which two upper-middle-class but otherwise average kids — played beautifully by Emma Roberts and newcomer Jack Kilmer — find their way to each other, the long way around. But the movie perfectly captures the vibe of late high school, in a way that’s both of its time and timeless. Palo Alto is set in the present, an era in which kids can text one another their whereabouts instead of having to walk or drive around aimlessly until they run into someone they know, or might want to know. Yet Coppola, who adapted the movie from James Franco’s book of short stories, quietly makes the case that our gadgets can’t save us from the eternal fear of not connecting. When a boy really likes a girl, he still has to bring himself to look directly at her. It’s all there in Coppola’s movie, the listlessness, the at once hyperkinetic and underwater-slow feeling of waiting for something to happen and fearing nothing ever will.
The plotlessness of Palo Alto is its own kind of structure, forming an irregular net studded with both golden promise and opportunities for its characters to make some very bad decisions. The movie opens in the middle, or in a middle: In a car parked in an otherwise deserted parking lot, its headlights fixed on the blankness of the wall in front of it, a pixie-faced strawberry-blond, Kilmer’s Teddy, answers the hypothetical questions posed by his best friend, Fred (Nat Wolff), as the two pass a bottle of something or other back and forth. “If you were in olden times, what would you do?” Fred asks, though no answer Teddy might give will please him. Fred’s a pressure cooker waiting to blow, and though Teddy senses that, he sticks by his friend either out of loyalty or just because he doesn’t know what else to do.
There’s a girl Teddy likes, Roberts’s April. She seems to like Teddy back, but neither knows how to make anything happen. April, dressed in a little spring coat that makes her look like a modern suburban Audrey Hepburn, goes to a party and finds Teddy lounging outdoors with Fred. She plops into a chair nearby and the two proceed to fail to talk to each other, something like the way longtime married couples do. Then they go to a nearby cemetery and poke around, April at one point carving a heart into the bark of a tree. Fred comes along and behaves obnoxiously.
April is probably too distracted to start anything with Teddy, anyway: Her home life seems OK, though her stepfather (played by Val Kilmer, father of Jack), who appears to be ill and medicated to the gills on marijuana, insists on rewriting her school assignments for her. And her mother (Jacqui Getty, Coppola’s own mother), a woman who looks as if she sprang fully formed from a Pilates apparatus, seems attentive but is in truth checked out. (For young and old alike in Palo Alto, marijuana is one of the basic food groups.)
Meanwhile, April is getting the entirely wrong sort of attention from her soccer coach, the louche, rumpled Mr. B (Franco, in the kind of unstudied, perceptively shaded performance he used to give before he became more ubiquitous than hydrogen). Palo Alto doesn’t shy away from the danger of sex, or the likelihood that it will make people do stupid or immoral things. One of April’s schoolmates, a dreamy doe of a girl named Emily (played with Zen-like composure by a fine young actress named Zoe Levin), really likes sex but hasn’t yet gotten the hang of sharing it with the right people. She gives perhaps too much away to live wire Fred, though their mismatch is at least half tender.
Coppola’s filmmaking style, like a sidelong glance, is almost paradoxically shy and confident at once. She uses voiceover dialogue against, say, a sunny blur of trees as viewed from the passenger seat of a car, to keep the action moving between scenes, and not just as a way of explaining the obvious. Shot by relative newcomer Autumn Durald, the images have an old-school luminous clarity. There’s no shaky-cam nonsense to telegraph how confusing these characters’ lives are. Durald and Coppola know the movie doesn’t need it.
And though it’s hard to say from a debut whether a director has a gift for guiding actors, every performer here is so fully in tune with one another and the material that it’s safe to surmise Coppola may have the touch. Kilmer and Roberts are wondrous: As April, Roberts’s velvety gaze is both a challenge and a question mark; she’s perched on that perilous peak between schoolgirl innocence and young-woman worldliness, and though her judgment is sound, she still doesn’t know enough to trust it. And Kilmer’s Teddy is a slightly messed-up kid whose impulse toward kindness ultimately saves him. Still, you hold your breath every time he makes a wrong choice, or an almost-wrong one: He has the look of a punk cherub, and you don’t want to see him crash-land.
Partly because there’s so much confusion for these characters to navigate, they smoke — oh, how they smoke! — drawing nicotine and other assorted bearers of bad tidings deep into their healthy pink lungs. I can hear the anti-smoking police clucking right now, but damn, it’s lovely. Only the very young can get away with smoking (it’s a vampire that will begin sucking the life out of you around age 25), so the act symbolizes a specifically youthful kind of freedom: that of not yet having to care about dying. There are, after all, so many more immediate things to care about when you’re just trying to get the knack of living. Palo Alto is a movie of exceedingly delicate feeling, the kind you can make only when you’re very young or very old. Coppola — granddaughter of Francis Ford, niece of Sofia — is just 27, and her movie, for and about young people, breathes in deeply. But maybe it means even more when you’re on the other side of 50 and beginning to exhale: How could we ever have felt this way? How could we not?