When James Franco’s collection of short stories, Palo Alto Stories, came out in 2009, I bought it. I read the first story, Halloween, and felt that it was reminiscent of the UK show Skins, which is a show that I love (it’s on Netflix, you should watch it, but only watch the UK version. Trust me. Don’t even consider starting the US MTV remake, it’s appalling.). I didn’t finish the book, which is a problem I have, starting things and not finishing them. At any rate, the movie came out in the height of the pretentious James Franco phase (which may not even be a phase, at this point? I don’t know. I keep telling myself it is because I’m a Franco-fan. At least I think I am. I could just be a Franco-fan by proxy because I’m an enormous Judd Apatow fan and he’s part of that crew, but I don’t know. All’s I know is I’ll defend Franco. As you’ll see. In this blog post.) I got around to watching the film adaptation of Palo Alto Stories, titled just Palo Alto, tonight, and I was so pleasantly surprised. I was really expecting it to be just the a film that reeked of pseudo-intellectual bullshit, but it wasn’t that. It was very raw and it offered a pretty harrowing view of fictional California teenagers, though I think I can say that there’s more than probably some acute truth in the depiction of privileged west coast teens. They smoke, they drink, they make huge mistakes to which their parents inflict no real consequences on them. This is something that baffles me. I know there are people in this world whose parents have no response of authority or guidance when their child does something that is so clearly wrong. For instance, when Teddy, played by Val Kilmer’s son Jack Kilmer, is the perpetrator of a hit and run whilst driving under the influence, he receives no punishment from his parents, not even a slap on the wrist. I get that this is a film and that it’s fictional, but there are people like that in this world! Parents who don’t care what their children do. That’s foreign to me, because my parents couldn’t possibly care anymore than they do about me and my behavior/reputation. I’m so thankful for that because that’s the kind of upbringing all children deserve, and I think it’s why I know right from wrong and how to carry myself. But I digress. It’s a very aesthetically pleasing film. Director Gia Coppola, niece of Sofia Coppola, is understandably influenced by the films of her familial predecessor. Palo Alto is enormously evocative of The Virgin Suicides. Even so far as literally in some scenes, you can see that Emma Roberts’ character April has a Virgin Suicides poster on the wall of her bedroom. It’s dreamy in the same way that Sofia’s films are dreamy. Very muted color scheme, which makes every scene feel somehow simultaneously warm and cold. Palo Alto has been compared to Harmony Korine’s Kids and Gummo, but I didn’t get that vibe. The shock factor wasn’t there, and I think that’s the whole motivation behind Korine’s films. The only similarities between Korine and Palo Alto, in my opinion, was the unflinching depictions of misspent youth.
Apart from Emma Roberts’ stunning performance as the vulnerable April, who falls prey to the seemingly charming but ultimately presumptuous Mr. B, played by James Franco, the star and most alluring character is Nat Wolff’s Fred. His energy radiated on screen and despite his extreme self destructive and threatening presence. He’s violently selfish and narcissistic. The whole time I was watching the film, I wanted to know more about Fred. Is he on a steady drug cocktail that leaves him aggressively frantic or is there something wrong with him? What is he drinking out of that flower vase that still has flowers in it- WHY is he drinking out of that flower vase that still has flowers in it? He has no backstory, and I love that. I think an interesting turn the movie could have taken would have been to further develop Fred as more of a main character. Then again, maybe the reason I was so drawn to Fred was because he was such an elusive character; here one scene, gone the next. Perhaps, if the film would have followed that character arc more closely, we would have discovered he was a psychopath. He shows no remorse toward his habit for destruction, a habit that annihilates not only his surroundings but the people he holds close to him, and he shows no remorse. He shows the signs for a psychopath or sociopath, conclusively putting his character in a box and leaving him in a position where the viewer would be less enchanted by him. Fred was more interesting than Teddy. I was uninterested in Teddy’s story immediately after his arrest. While Teddy’s story became less and less interesting, Fred’s became more complex and interesting, and I’m left now wondering what became of Fred. The film concludes with a powerful scene of Fred racing the wrong way down a street screaming “I’m not Bob”, a mantra described earlier in the film that encourages one to turn away from death and not walk into it, arms open. It’s a powerful scene, and really solidified my opinion that Fred was the most entertaining, interesting, most perfectly underdeveloped and unpredictable character.