It would be easy to think that the last name Coppola is a shortcut to becoming a filmmaker, but that would be dismissive, and honestly, sort of backwards. At this point, living up to that last name must be an intimidating prospect, but with her first film, Gia Coppola proves herself to be a deeply empathic filmmaker with a great sense of atmosphere. "Palo Alto," based on a collection of short stories by James Franco, is a lovely debut film, and a strong expression of just how it feels to be a teenager struggling to figure out your place in the world.
Forget about narrative. Forget about whether things add up in a typical A-B-C fashion. What makes "Palo Alto" special is the way it captures certain feelings, and it's not an easy thing. There were moments in the film where I found myself almost completely transported back to those long, weird, woozy nights where Teenage Drew made bad decisions and just plain didn't care. Something as simple as a party in a house where someone's parents are out of town becomes an excuse for Coppola to dig deep into the still-nascent souls of these aimless kids, and while she is very frank about showing how the currency of sex is such a casual thing for them on the surface, she's also very good at showing us the ways it actually impacts them in some permanent way.