Everyone's trying new things in "Palo Alto," and not just the inexperienced teenage characters on screen. This is the first feature directed by Gia Coppola (Francis' granddaughter), who wrote the script from James Franco's first book of short stories. One of the film's stars, Jack Kilmer, has never acted before. Others behind the scenes, from the composers to the cinematographer, can count "Palo Alto" as their first significant feature film credit.
That may be one reason "Palo Alto" feels earnest and promising, but half-formed. Like its three protagonists, all troubled students at the same high school in Palo Alto -- an affluent Northern California suburb where Franco was born and raised -- the movie emulates others in its peer group but has trouble asserting its own personality.
The characters are well-drawn but familiar, beginning with April (Emma Roberts, "We're the Millers"), whose fast-moving friends, checked-out parents and low self-esteem add up to a recipe for disaster. Teddy (an appealing Kilmer, son of the actor Val Kilmer, who also appears) is a wisp of a boy who obliterates his sensitive side with alcohol. His friend Fred (Nat Wolff, "Admission") is a bright but destructive problem-child. Franco himself takes the role of Mr. B, a well-liked soccer coach with an eye for April.
As her aunt Sofia Coppola did in last year's "The Bling Ring," Gia Coppola presents us with worrisome images of teenagers drinking, getting high and sleeping around (Zoe Levin plays Emily, the school's go-to girl), punctuated with pensive close-ups that suggest an emotional hollowness. Left unexamined, though, are the root causes for this behavior. Is it something to do with the town of the movie's title, or are these just any teens, anywhere? "Palo Alto" strikes a convincingly brooding pose, but what it's really thinking about remains unclear.
PLOT In a quiet suburb, the lives of several troubled teenagers intertwine.
RATING R (language, sexuality, adult themes)
CAST Emma Roberts, James Franco, Jack Kilmer, Nat Wolff
BOTTOM LINE Gia Coppola's debut film, based on James Franco's debut short-story collection, feels like fledgling work: promising but uncertain.