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Palo Alto

Whether the market has reached the saturation point of James Franco remains to be seen. The actor-director-performance artist-writer-doctoral candidate and whatever else certainly keeps busy, though a lot of his work isn’t very widely distributed. (Anyone still waiting for his adaptation of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying to get to a local theater can give up: it’s out on DVD.)

Palo Alto was adapted from Franco’s book of loosely connected stories about teenagers set in the California suburb where he grew up, but though he appears in it he didn’t direct it. That task fell to Gia Coppola, granddaughter of Francis Ford Coppola. (Her father was Gian-Carlo Coppola, who probably would have gotten behind the camera too if he hadn’t died at the age of 22 in a speedboating accident.) And while I admit to having a chip on my shoulder about celebrity nepotism, it’s a strong debut. Given a wealth of potential material in Franco’s sometimes sketchy stories, she’s pared away the more sensationalistic material, so that what might have resembled Larry Clark’s lurid Kids is closer in tone (and plot) to Fast Times at Ridgemont High, minus the humor.

That said, there’s little here about unmotivated, uncomfortable teenagers you haven’t seen before: inability to connect with adults, dabbling with substance abuse and casual sex, and lots and lots of worrying. Franco’s stories were set in the 1980s, and while Coppola didn’t set her film then she doesn’t emphasize much about this era within it, so it has a timeless feel. She clearly empathizes with her characters, even the most troubled, which more than anything keeps you interested in their aimless lives. As a first effort it may be more laudable for what it avoids than what it achieves, but that’s not an inconsiderable achievement.

Watch the trailer for Palo Alto

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