Palo Alto is a weird film in that it doesn’t really have a cohesive narrative arc. The film is based off a collection of short stories by James Franco, so the interconnected stories aren’t so much actually related to one another as they just occupy the same timeframe. Some of the ways the stories overlap feel a bit contrived, but this film is saved from being a jumbled mess by giving each of its protagonists appropriate room to breathe, and the film really knows how to convey the desperate loneliness that stems from adolescence.
The three main characters are April, Teddy, and Fred, high schoolers in the film’s titular town. April is a good student and a dedicated soccer player, but she’s not a very popular girl and finds herself swayed by the advances of her soccer coach (played by an appropriately suave and sleazy James Franco). Teddy is a decent enough kid who is a talented artist, but finds himself constantly in trouble through his association with Fred. Because Fred seems to be his only friend, Teddy constantly covers for Fred’s antics, which lead to stints of community service and dangerous consequences. Fred, on the other hand, is out of control, without adult influences in his life and so afraid of his sexuality being undermined that he acts out in insane and self-destructive ways.
All three are victims of their development in a society that doesn’t recognize the problems they go through. April is a victim of her soccer coach’s advances, and when he turns out to be nothing more than a predator, April is alone in her knowledge of his violation of her. Teddy only tags along when Fred gets out of control, and when Fred leaves him holding the blame, he’ll take it in order to protect his only friend. And Fred, perhaps the most proactive in causing trouble, is just disturbed, partially due to having no adult role models, and partially because the word “gay” is so damn scary to him. These kids are outcasts, just as we all feel when we’re in high school, and they deal with the sorts of issues that real high schoolers go through. It’s heartbreaking to watch each of them go through their struggles without any real solutions to their problems ever presenting themselves. But that’s how life goes, and that’s what the film is trying to share with us.
Now, the downside to this format is that the film doesn’t really hold together as much more than a series of vignettes. Fred’s character isn’t really explored until the last third of the film, and before then his purpose is mostly to just show up and mess up Teddy’s life. Only in retrospect does he become interesting. And April’s story is rather clumsily tied into Teddy’s when he confesses his love for her in the latter half, even though the two characters had until then only shared one scene together. It’s bizarre and lazy, and I probably would have preferred a less linear approach to storytelling, treating each character separately and watching their stories interconnect in small ways as the main focus stays on one character at a time.
As is, though, Palo Alto is a satisfying experience and it does a fine job of giving a realistic portrayal of the high school experience. These kids are archetypes of the people we all knew growing up, the people we probably should have treated better but didn’t have the empathy to comprehend their pain yet. Hell, we can all probably find a little something of ourselves in these kids. I know I did.
Know any other films that convey a true-to-life adolescent experience? Let me know in the comments below.