Sunday, 22 March 2015

'Palo Alto': The Best Indie Movie

by Isabel Stark



Film, for me, is the most interesting of mediums. The ability for creative minds take flat words and mould them into moving objects fascinates me. The whole process is much trickier than it appears. I first started my drama career at the tender age of 2, making an appearance as the Virgin Mary in a two-girl play with my then-4-year old sister. I then started starring in some of my sister's films – I starred as ‘Eloise’ the six year old who lives in the penthouse suit of ‘the Plaza Hotel in New York City with her Nanny, her pug dog Weenie, and her turtle Skipperdee.’ I then progressed to star in the original film ‘Isabel Poirot’ (Poirot’s niece), scripted, directed, shot and acted by Louisa Stark. It’s fair to say I’ve had my fair share of dramatic experiences. We often made short films when our friends came over – it was a luxury to have more than three people and the opposite gender available. Anyway, I know a little of the struggle trying to make something fulfilling and stylish in this medium; that is why I would like to take this time to congratulate (two years too late) Gia Coppola for her first film, Palo Alto.

Palo Alto. Alas, I do not have the skill to articulate my feelings towards this film in a way which mirrors its stylistic quality and coolness. Released two years ago, it’s been around for a while; however, being a small, wildly indie film there was little publication and screening despite it being a Gia Coppola film (actually her first film).  Yes, the Coppola dynasty continues. Francis Ford is her grandfather, Sophia her aunt, Nicolas Cage her aunt’s cousin. This cinematic royal was coupled with James Franco. The film is based on Franco’s book by the same name; the book is a collection of short, intertwining stories about students at Palo Alto High School- all semi-fictitious, yet with an underlying core of reality drawn from Franco’s own teenage experiences. I have the utmost admiration for Franco and his book despite it being brushed off as the work of an ambitious young man who clearly loves to read, who has a good eye for detail, but who has spent way too much time on style and virtually none on substance. Coppola manages to retain this style which is intrinsic to the book. She uses flat-palette backgrounds. Her costumes exhume hipness. The lead, Jack Kilmer, was refreshingly actually the same age as his character, Teddy, when cast (his first acting role) aged 17. 

I struggle to see how Coppola managed to create such a stylised film, but still to maintain naturalism and realism. Not much happens within the film, but that is the quality which gives it the authenticity Franco was ultimately striving for. This perhaps makes the naturalism prominent over style. The film revolves around Teddy and April and their two different social circles within school but at the heart is a muted and dulled will- they-won’t-they relationship. Palo Alto is constantly on the verge of something happening; however, it floats along, echoing the teens’ lives and empty dreams. Without turning into a fly-on-the-wall documentary, this was about as close to the realm of reality a film can get. 


The film portrays smoking, excessive drinking, sex and drug taking. Not idealised in any way is the behaviour of these characters, but it showed an "edgy" authenticity lacking in mainstream British cinema. It is for this reason I found this small scale film satisfying- it conveyed true emotions and true feelings that the average teenager is exposed to in this day and age. Societies of course vary and even though we are united (the United States and Britain) by the same development levels and a common language, we still have fundamentally different experiences none more so than that of the traditional British public school versus a liberal Californian high school. Girls’ soccer, the general architecture and the community court are some of the few major differences that could alienate us British teens from this film. However, the differences are not made more alien to us like some high school teen US movies by showing some intangible story line of the nerd trying to get the head cheerleader/jock played by some 20- something model; instead, in Palo Alto, the flawed become relatable to us. 

The party scene is one which is (some may say sadly) relatable to most teenagers in the Western world. The bored yet raging teenage emotions are shown aptly through Die Antwoord’s “Enter the Ninja”, yet the slow motion technique Coppola employs here creates a tension. There is a tension between fast paced synth music juxtaposing the slow moving film but also there is a tension between the tempo of adolescent thoughts. Partying and freedom are placed alongside the reality of growing up and, eventually, life choices. There is a precarious balance between these two, which is a hard-biting point to master and this is explored truthfully throughout this film. The dilemmas and choices -the limbo world between teenager and adult the characters face - ricochets into my own life. Making choices which seem life-defining for me is a hard transition stage from child into adulthood, for this reason I have never felt more connected to this film. The open ending echoes the moral of the story.  Life is an open road which is for better and for worse; drive how you want down it, so to speak.


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