Adolescence in film is a broad subject. You have children in crucial stages of their lives, going into high school like Kayla in Eighth Grade. You have older teenagers in crucial stages of their lives too, including the last two years of high school and going off to college like Christine in Lady Bird, and Randall, David and Slater in Dazed and Confused.
Then you have the ‘inbetweeners’, who are in the middle of high school and not quite ready to leave for college yet. They’re sort of floating, not knowing who they are or what to do; namely Teddy, April, Fred and Emily of Palo Alto. Their ages are never disclosed in the film but we can guess they’re around 14-16.
How Cinematography Affects Moods
The dreamy, directorial debut of third-generation filmmaker Gia Coppola takes place in none other than Palo Alto, California, although filmed in Los Angeles. Some might argue there’s no ‘end’ or a main plot to the film, but this is what makes it so realistic. It’s vague and empty, and Gia has borrowed aunt Sofia’s pastel color palette for the backdrop of the film, which adds a loving female gaze around April and her life.
The topic and feeling of boredom is prominent and is the main focus in Palo Alto, as is lust, feeling lost, and teenage angst. Despite the fact that the film is not quite cohesive, it showcases the young teenage rebellion in middle class American suburbia with thoughts, feelings and memories that everyone can relate to in some way.
It’s about teenage drift, the sunken torpor of late summer afternoons, the sun casting almost horizontal shadows across largely empty parking lots that seem to cry out for something to happen. It’s about the blank spaces in teenage heads and lives, and what they do to fill them.
– The Guardian
Mirroring The Virgin Suicides (1999)
Palo Alto is almost a mirrored image of Gia’s aunt Sofia’s 1999 directorial debut The Virgin Suicides. The female gaze is evident in both Coppola films and, although ensemble films, both zoom in on main and possibly destructive relationships (Lux and Trip in The Virgin Suicides and Mr. B and April, mirroring the innocent relationship between her and Teddy in Palo Alto).
Realism & Boredom
The art of boredom and suburbia are interesting genres to be explored in Palo Alto. The scenes are filled with mundane drunken parties, homework and babysitting, college counselling and hook-ups with soccer coaches and teenage boys. Those jumbled scenes include empty bedrooms, streets and houses to show different sides to the main characters, teetering on trying to act like adults but still maintaining their youth.
The parties are the only real thing that exhibits their teenage angst and is the sole fun recreational thing they do. “You wanna do a shot or something?” April is seen talking to an acquaintance at one of the parties; trying to find something else to do. The scene outside during the party with April and Teddy sitting on chairs in silence is a complete turnaround from the gathering that was just shown before, and a couple of scenes after where the party is at its biggest. They watch Fred on the floor hitting nails, when there’s a party right behind him. They want something better.
Scenes of Peak Adolescence
Most of the scenes in the first half of the movie are showing off the characters adolescence and innocence: the quiet scenes of April doing her homework, waiting after soccer practice for someone to pick her up, walking to class and bumping into Teddy. The last scene with him truly shows their awkwardness around each other when not at a party. April is also shown to be eating inside her school locker; no friends around, no one apart from Mr. B (James Franco), who tells her he’s good with homework, which he ends up helping her with when she babysits his son after school. This is the peak of adolescence for April in the movie; she tries to act grown up by trying to be smart about history and kissing Mr. B back, but her childish ways are see-through.
April has a college counselling session near the middle of the movie. She ends up leaving and crying in the bathroom; we don’t know if it’s about her future, or everything else that has gone on in her life, but it’s evident that things are getting to be too much. Her two friends come into the bathroom, talking about shopping and periods. They’re carefree teens; it’s almost a polar opposite to April’s life, who’s crying on the floor. It’s like she wants to be an adult so badly, but it’s too much for her to keep up the act.
How Teen Angst Affects Relationships
Near the end, Fred starts acting crazy in the car with Teddy. He’s confused and he doesn’t know why Fred is acting like this; it’s almost as if Teddy’s grown up and moved away from everything that’s gone on in the movie, and Fred’s still stuck at the beginning; childish and full of pent-up teenage angst. The end scene is mundane and open-ended, Fred and Teddy on the opposite ends of the spectrum; Fred is the epitome of angst, bored of his suburban life and driving recklessly down the wrong side of the road. Teddy’s on the sidewalk, texting what seems to be April – it’s like they’re both finally happy with their lives and their future.
How Suburbia Impacts Characters’ Actions
The “filler” scenes of vast emptiness show that the teenagers are trying to grip onto anything to do in their seemingly quiet suburb, and the pressure they have to grow up when they’re still children. These can be taken from three main scenes: the opening scene with Teddy and Fred in the car, drinking unnamed alcohol and conversing about history, when Fred hits the accelerator and crashes into the wall. This scene is such a good example of teenage angst and boredom; Fred gets a rush of adrenaline as he hits the gas and Teddy’s sat there shocked, nursing his own bloody temple from the impact. They’re bored, they’re in a parking lot, and they’re finding the most mundane things exciting and rebellious.
Another scene that reflects Teddy and Fred’s moods is another one near the beginning, where they’re in a parking lot and they’re smoking. Fred’s high, drumming his fingers on his knees. Teddy’s trying to etch something onto a barred window on a building. It’s dead in the parking lot and they’re hungry for something, anything to do.
Trying to Grow Up
The third scene is with April and Mr. B; April is sad when Mr. B doesn’t talk to her anymore at school after saying he likes her. He ends up telling her he loves her and she’s physically upset and confused: she knows it’s wrong, she doesn’t know what to do. “I should be hanging out with guys my own age,” April says, “Why do you want to hang out with a bunch of little boys?” Mr. B replies. In another scene together, she’s jealous over Mr. B talking to another girl. She tries to insult the girl, but it’s really all about Mr. B.
Later on, she’s disappointed from losing the soccer game. They end up sleeping together and April tries to assert herself, explore who she is, impress the teacher and act grown up, when in reality she’s still a child. She’s even wearing days of the week underwear. A follow-up scene is the two conversing on the phone. April pretends she doesn’t know who she’s talking to, she’s aggravated and won’t let him talk. She’s upset over him choosing another babysitter for his son. This is when the adolescent side is very apparent in the latter half of the movie.
Shallow Ideals and Representation
There’s not much representation on the streets and in the houses of the characters of Palo Alto. All of the main characters are white and middle class in one of the most expensive cities in California. I think this is where most of the hate comes from next to the ‘wishy-washy’ plot. Some people might also think there isn’t enough representation in other areas, as on the surface, the movie seems like an American Apparel ad.
It seems too dreamy and too shallow to have any representation, but thankfully it deals with a lot of different ideals, maybe not in the best way but definitely realistic. It shows different ways teenagers deal with mental illnesses, April especially with depression and suicidal thoughts. She drinks, smokes and hides all her emotions to put on more of a care-free attitude, but this breaks down during a conversation with Teddy.
His story revolves around his community service sentence from drunk driving and substance abuse which coincides with Fred. In Fred’s story there is possible mental illness and maybe hinting at sexual assault – Fred’s dad came onto Teddy which means he may have been doing the same to his son. April’s story also revolves around her inappropriate relationship with her coach, but never shows the true impact it had on her later in the movie. Emily’s story focuses on her promiscuity and her relationship with Fred, which could coincide with her self-confidence issues that show up in certain scenes, mainly with Fred – almost like she wants to impress him.
Real Life for Teenagers
Palo Alto gets a lot of criticism and hate and I’m not sure why. I think it’s a perfect representation of teenagers who are lost and trying to find who they are, whether that’s doing things that aren’t exactly the best for them or acting out of character, I think it’s truly realistic to a lot of teenagers of any age and they can relate. They can project themselves onto characters and into scenes, as each character is complex in their own way but able to leave room to be relatable, same goes with scenes. I think a lot of people who call the movie shallow and boring haven’t given it a fair chance. I think it’s beautiful and dreamy, and a clear example of how to do coming of age in a movie right.