Teddy likes April and April likes Teddy. They’re at a party together and fail to kiss each other when they should. They instead kiss other people. They find out about each other’s misdirected kissing and figure that they will never kiss each other, ever. It probably wouldn’t take them ninety minutes of screen time to finally kiss (by which I mean reciprocate each others’ text messages) if it weren’t for the fact that they both have demons on their shoulders. Teddy (Jack Kilmer) has Fred (Nat Wolff), the hooligan friend who supplies him with drugs and bad ideas. April (Emma Roberts) has Mr. B (James Franco), one of the most demure rapists of cinema.
Seeing that summary play out will leave some viewers feeling frustrated that all this teenage angst seems to have no worthwhile impetus. James Franco’s story collection Palo Alto, upon which the film is based, includes a lot more bullying, homophobia, misogyny, socioeconomic inequality, and racism to motivate the characters’ raging. In the movie, the characters are growing up under enviable circumstances—they have supportive families and lots of money and their own cars and easy access to good drugs and parties and pretty people. Indeed, the primary conflict—the meager star-crossing—appears to be that Teddy and April simply haven’t told each other their feelings. The tragedy is a Craigslist-worthy missed connection. (Fred, our bad boy, is the only one whose legitimate gripes make it onto the screen. We get the impression he might be gay and wishes he wasn’t. He has a father who tries to seduce his buddies, perhaps implying that he himself has been molested by his dad.)
The generally source-less, direction-less anger isn’t an oversight on the part of the writers and filmmakers. “I do things all the time for no reason,” April tells Mr. B, who replies, “It’s because you’re young and you don’t know why you do things.” It’s true—our characters’ problems are minor when measured against much of the world’s, but it’s too easy to disregard the readymade anger that comes with growing up. An unfortunate part of maturing is how we often forget the aspects of the adult world that made us not want to join it, even if our reasons were difficult to articulate. As an epigraph to the story collection, Franco uses Proust to meditate on what is lost when we leave teenage spontaneity behind: “In later life we look at things in a more practical way, in full conformity with the rest of society, but adolescence is the only period in which we learn anything.”
Director and screenwriter Gia Coppola has done an amazing job of distilling a cohesive narrative from Franco’s disparate stories, and the experience of reading the collection and watching the film in close succession is a hugely pleasurable scavenger hunt of dialogue extracting and character swapping. The editing is purposefully choppy and usually serves its purpose in making a pretty film look more raw and less burnished. At times, though, especially during the soccer scenes, navigating the conversations of various groups of characters leads to their placement in the physical space coming across as unintentionally stagey. “Let’s get out of here,” in at least two scenes seems to be addressed to the editor rather than the characters. And there were just a few moments where I felt like Coppola wasn’t trusting her viewers enough. We don’t need the game Never Have I Ever explained to us, and neither do your characters. We don’t need a montage of characters getting alcohol poured down their throats and smoking Daffy Duck pre-execution conveyor belts of cigarettes to show us that these kids are partying hard. We don’t need April to tell her spacey mother, “I just said that,” because we just heard her say that and we’re not spacey like her mother. We don’t need Fred to point out that Teddy is baked immediately preceding his car accident for us to know that this would be a bad time for Teddy to get into a car accident. “Is that your guitar?” Fred asks Emily of the guitar leaning against her bed in her bedroom. Just pick up the guitar and start playing.
Given Franco’s publicity stunt—remember how he pretended to get caught soliciting sex from a 17-year-old Scottish girl and the whole thing went viral hours after the Palo Alto trailer otherwise wouldn’t have?—it’s difficult to separate the film from its source(s). For better or worse, the story collection is way harder core. TEEN SEX!!! was at least an implied lure in the advertising campaign for the movie, but it’s actually pretty restrained in the film itself. The camera averts its iris during the sex scenes, focusing on various bedroom knickknacks until the characters are putting their clothes back on.
Aside from sex, other actions are also kept to the imagination. Although I’m happy that they didn’t actually show Teddy and Fred cut down the tree, it would have been a bolder film if they had. They won’t even let us see Emma Roberts kick a soccer ball. That April is being raped by her coach is of course a trauma that I failed to account for earlier, but even this plot point has been diluted in the translation to film. In the book, it’s through bro-ish gossip that readers first get a hint that there’s a wound in April’s past. Teddy asks Barry if he had sex with April—and we’re supposed to read between the lines that this is a very important question for Teddy—to which Barry replies, “No, I did, but the whole situation is bullshit. She’s fucking crazy. I mean really crazy. Like I think she got molested or something.” Whereas in the book April is fourteen when Mr. B rapes her, she’s older in the film and enters her relationship with whatever amount of self-possession a high schooler is capable of. Kubrick’s Lolita fails in part because Sue Lyon does not look fourteen, much less twelve. While raising April’s age is part logistics in Palo Alto’s screenplay, the emotional impact is likewise different.
Unlike the film, the story collection features at least four deaths. The dreamy idealism of the aforementioned Proust epigraph is strongly rebuffed by the first sentence of the book: “Ten years ago, my sophomore year in high school, I killed a woman on Halloween.” Only one of the deaths makes it into the film, an irreverent graveyard conversation about an Asian kid who probably killed himself “because he was Asian,” one of many seemingly improvised exchanges that is nearly word-for-word from the book (and one of the only moments where the movie acknowledges that not-white people exist…or existed, at least).
Franco states in an essay included in the film reissue of Palo Alto that his original inspiration to write the stories was to preserve the memory of a rowdy childhood friend named Ivan who had died years after their friendship dissolved. Omitting most of these deaths and ditching most of the story collection’s attempts at shock value were probably wise moves on Coppola’s part, but the screenplay’s only serious misstep is her decision to shoehorn Franco’s most grotesque story, Chinatown, into the Fred/Emily narrative. Although she at first appears to be a minor character, Emily (Zoe Levin) steals the show early on, as her willingness to have sex with everyone clashes with her shy contribution to a game of Never Have I Ever: “I’ve never been in love.” One of the film’s most powerful scenes is when she looks herself in the mirror after post-blow-job Teddy stumbles from the room without saying thanks.
When Roberto and Pam of the short story become Fred and Emily in the film, we get a whirlwind summary of the Chinatown crimes—Roberto’s shameless whoring out of Pam—as voiceover during a backyard frolic. Although the nasty events in the voiceover contrast shockingly with Fred and Emily’s bucolic tryst, the Chinatown narrative seems forced, suddenly too X-rated compared to the other 99% of the film. It transforms Fred into a real villain rather than a charismatic prankster, a transformation that leaves us unable to feel the empathy we should as he drives into oncoming traffic at the end of the film. The conclusion is still powerful, Fred yelling out “I’m not Bob,” a phrase he’d picked up from an art teacher as a mantra of turning away from death rather than into it, intercut with Teddy walking down the center line of a bike path. Not only do we understand at this moment that Teddy is a character still deciding whether to veer into danger or go with the flow, but his ability to walk this line hearkens back to the beginning of the film, when Fred-supplied drugs had rendered him unable to pass a sobriety test.
Franco has drawn a lot of griping in the literary world for the “ease” with which he’s become the poster boy for literature in America, especially the classics. His stories do, I admit, strike me as redolent of certain freedoms that fiction writers often discover in high school: the freedom to write violence, the freedom to over-milk death for pathos, the freedom to have your young hero writers idolize Faulkner and Steinbeck and talk about them all the time, the freedom to record dialogue that does not advance the plot, the Hemingway-esque freedom to use “good” instead of a more precise adjective.
So maybe the dude should have amassed a thousand rejections like the rest of us. But since the stories that make up Palo Alto are about young people in the midst of this adolescent flux, the amateurish aspects of his writing come across as endearing and appropriate. For this reason, a rookie director was a wise choice for Palo Alto. There might be imperfections in Coppola’s execution, but what comes from the vigorous spontaneity of her attack is probably the closest we upper-class, white, MFA students will get to really remembering those weird years before we became smart and responsible and tightly edited.